City of Mobile v. Eslava
41 U.S. 234 (1842)

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U.S. Supreme Court

City of Mobile v. Eslava, 41 U.S. 16 Pet. 234 234 (1842)

City of Mobile v. Eslava

41 U.S. (16 Pet.) 234

Syllabus

A lot of ground, part of the ground on which Fort Charlotte had been erected, in the City of Mobile, before the territory was acquired from Spain by the United States, had been sold under an act of Congress of 1818. The lot had been laid out according to a plan by which a street called Water Street was run along the margin of Mobile River, and the street was extended over part of the site of Fort Charlotte. The lot was situated west of Water Street, but when sold by the United States, its eastern line was below high water mark of the river. The purchaser of this lot improved the lot lying in front of it, east of Water Street, having filled it up at a heavy expense, thus reclaiming it from the river, which at high water had covered it. When the lot east of Water Street was purchased, the purchaser could not pass along the street except with the aid of logs and other timber. Water Street was, in 1823, filled up at the cost of the City of Mobile. Taxes and assessments for making sidewalks along Water Street were paid to the City of Mobile by the owner of the lot. The City of Mobile had brought suit for taxes, and had advertised the lot for sale as the property of a tenant under the purchaser of the lot. On 26 May, 1824, Congress passed an act which declared in the first section that all the right and claim of the United States to the lots known as the Hospital and Bakehouse lots, containing about three-fourths of an acre of land in the State of Alabama, and all the right and claim of the United States to all the lots not sold or confirmed to individuals either by this or any former act, and to which no equitable title exists in favor of any individual under this or any other act, between high water mark and the channel of the river and between Church Street and North Boundary Street in front of the City of Mobile should be vested in the corporation of the City of Mobile for the use of the city forever. The second section provides

"That all the right and claim of the United States to so many of the lots east of Water Street and between Church Street and North Boundary Street, now known as water lots, as are situated between the channel of the river and the front of the lots, known under the Spanish government as water lots, in the said City of Mobile, whereon improvements have been made be and the same are hereby vested in the several proprietors and occupants of each of the lots heretofore fronting on the River Mobile,"

&c. The City of Mobile claimed from the defendant in error the lot held by him, under the purchase from the United States, and the improvements before described, asserting that the same was vested in the city by the first section of the act of 1824. Held that under the provisions of the second section of the act, the defendant in error claiming under the purchase made under the act of 1818 and under the act of 1824 was entitled to the lot.

The right relinquished by the United States was to the water lots,

"lying east of Water Street and between Church Street and North Boundary Street, now known as water lots, as are situated between the channel of the river and the front of the lots, known under the Spanish government as water lots, in the said City of Mobile, whereon improvements have been made."

The improvements refer to the water, and

Page 41 U. S. 235

not to the front, lots. A reasonable construction of the act requires the improvements to have been made or owned by the proprietor of the front lot at the time of the passage of the act. Being proprietor of the front lot, and having improved the water lot opposite and east of Water Street, constitute the conditions on which the right under the statute vests.

The plaintiffs in error instituted an action called, in the language of the laws of Alabama, "a plea of trespass to try titles," against Miguel D. Eslava, the purpose of which was the recovery of possession and damages for the detention of a certain lot of ground, in the City of Mobile bounded north by ground in the possession of Thomas Terry, east by Commerce Street, south by Church Street, west by Water Street, and extending from the east side of Commerce Street to the channel of the river.

The cause was tried in the circuit court in November 1837, and a judgment on the verdict of a jury was rendered for the defendant. The plaintiffs took a bill of exceptions to the charge of the court, and afterwards prosecuted a writ of error to the Supreme Court of Alabama, where the judgment of the circuit court was affirmed. The plaintiffs took out this writ of error to the Supreme Court of the United States.

The bill of exceptions stated that the lot in controversy was held by the defendant under the following circumstances:

By an act of Congress passed in 1818, the lot of ground whereon Fort Charlotte, in the Town of Mobile, had been situated was directed to be surveyed and laid off into lots, with suitable streets and avenues conforming as near as may be to the original plan of the town, and the lots thus laid off were directed to be sold under the authority of the president of the United States. The lots were surveyed and laid off and were afterwards sold. By an original plan of the town, a street known as Water Street was run on the margin of Mobile River, continuous with and fronting the same. This street was run on part of the site of Fort Charlotte, where the lots are laid out; another street, known as Church Street, was laid off on the site of the fort. The lots were sold by the United States agreeable to the plan; no lots were laid off, and none was sold by the United States east of Water Street. Under the Spanish government, and while the United States held possession of Fort Charlotte, there was an open unobstructed

Page 41 U. S. 236

space from high water mark on the river to the channel, except a wharf used for the commerce of the fort.

The lot in dispute was situated on the east side of Water Street, directly opposite to the lot sold by the United States, part of the site of the fort, within the open space between high and low water mark, and part of it within the boundary of the picket fence that formerly surrounded the fort. After the purchase of the lots laid out on the site of Fort Charlotte by "the lot company," a survey was made by the company, and a larger quantity of ground was included in the survey. The defendant held under a purchase from the lot company. There is a regular oceanic tide in the River Mobile, the ebb and flow of which is about eighteen inches. In 1822, Water Street and the lot in dispute were between high and low water mark. The City of Mobile, at the cost of the city, filled up Water Street to some extent, and confined the water at high tide to the eastern edge of Water Street. No evidence was offered to prove the lots in front of Fort Charlotte were known under the Spanish government as water lots, on which improvements had been made.

The plaintiffs, in the circuit court, claimed title under the Act of Congress of 20 May 1824, entitled "an act granting certain lots of ground to the corporation of the City of Mobile, and to certain individuals in the said city." Considerable sums of money were expended by the purchasers of the lots on the site of Fort Charlotte, to fill up the lots between Water Street and low water mark, and the passage along Water Street could only be made, until it was filled up by the corporation of Mobile, by logs laid along the street. The lot in dispute had been filled up at a heavy expense, and the tenant of the defendant in error had, according to an entry on the books of the corporation, in 1823, filled up a stagnant pond at the end of Church Street, which had been occasioned by the improvement on the lot. One witness testified that the stakes in front of the lot, when sold by the United States, ran to the east of Water Street, so that a portion of the property, when purchased from the United States, would have been within the staked lines of the lot. Evidence was offered by the defendant to prove that in 1828 and for every year until 1836, taxes on the lot had been paid to the corporation of Mobile; that in 1833, the person in possession of the lot had been required

Page 41 U. S. 237

by the Mayor of Mobile to fill up two places upon it with earth or shells, and about the same time the corporation had advertised the lot for sale for unpaid taxes, which were afterwards paid.

The Act of 20 May 1824, by its first section, declared,

"That the right and claim of the United States to the lots known as the Hospital and Bakehouse lots, containing about three-fourths of an acre of land, in the State of Alabama, and also all the right and claim of the United States to all the lots not sold or confirmed to individuals either by this or any former act, and to which no equitable title exists in favor of any individual, either by this or any former act, between high water mark and the channel of the river and between Church Street, and North Boundary Street, in front of the said city, be and the same are hereby vested in the mayor and aldermen of the said city,"

&c. The second section of the act declared

"That all the right and claim of the United States to so many of the lots east of Water Street, and between Church Street and North Boundary Street, and now known as water lots, as are situated between the channel of the river and the front of the lots known under the Spanish government as water lots, in the said City of Mobile, whereon improvements had been made, be and the same are hereby vested in the several proprietors or occupants of each of the lots heretofore fronting on the River Mobile, except in cases where such proprietor or occupant has alienated his right to any such lot now designated as a water lot,"

&c.

Upon which the judge charged the jury that if the lots specified in the patents 10, 11, 12 &c., were proved to have been bounded by high water mark at the time purchased, then they came within the terms of "lots known under the Spanish government as water lots, as used in the act of Congress," and if proved that the lot claimed was east of Water Street and in front of the lots covered by the patents, and that it had been improved before the passage of the act, it was vested in the proprietors and occupants of the lots held under the patents, and this although Water Street did intervene between the lots claimed and those held under the patents.

Page 41 U. S. 242

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