Mills v. St. Clair County
49 U.S. 569

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Mills v. St. Clair County, 49 U.S. 8 How. 569 569 (1850)

Mills v. St. Clair County

49 U.S. (8 How.) 569

Syllabus

In the year 1819, the Legislature of Illinois authorized Samuel Wiggins, his heirs and assigns, to establish a ferry on the east bank of the River Mississippi near the town of Illinois, and to run the same from lands "that may belong to him," provided the ferry should be put into actual operation within eighteen months.

At this time he had no land, but within the eighteen months acquired an interest in a tract of one hundred acres.

In 1821 another act was passed authorizing him to remove the ferry "on any land that may belong to him" on the said Mississippi River, under the same privileges as were prescribed by the former act.

The words of this act "on any land that may belong to him" must be construed to apply to the land which then belonged to him, and not to such as he obtained after the passage of the act, viz., in 1822.

The following rules for construing statutes applied to the case, viz.,

First, that in a grant designed by the sovereign power making it to be a general benefit and accommodation to the public, if the meaning of the words be doubtful, they shall be taken most strongly against the grantee and for the government, and therefore should not be extended by implication in favor of the grantee beyond the natural and obvious meaning of the words employed, and if these do not support the right claimed, it must fall.

Secondly, if the grant admits of two interpretations, one of which is more extended and the other more restricted, so that a choice is fairly open, and either may be adopted without any apparent violation of the apparent objects of the grant, if in such case one interpretation would render the grant inoperative and the other would give it force and effect, the latter, if within a reasonable construction of the terms employed, should be adopted.

The jurisdiction of this Court under the twenty-fifth section of the Judiciary Act extends to a review of the judgment of a state court where the point involved was the alleged violation of a contract granting a ferry right by a state to an individual, but it does not extend to a case where the alleged violation of a contract is that a state has taken more land than was necessary for the easement which it wanted, and thus violated the contract under which the owner held his land by a patent. It rests with state legislatures and state courts exclusively to protect their citizens from injustice and oppression of this description.

Mills and others filed their bill in chancery in the state court of Illinois, seeking to obtain an injunction against the defendants

Page 49 U. S. 570

in error. The bill states the case of the complainants as follows.

The people of the western part of Illinois had from the earliest settlement of that country maintained a constant commercial intercourse with the Town of St. Louis, and long felt the necessity for increased facilities in crossing the Mississippi River. For the purpose of securing these facilities, the state made a contract with Samuel Wiggins for the establishment of a ferry across that stream, with boats to be propelled by steam or horse power. An act of the general assembly was passed, which was approved on 2 March, 1819, which was as follows:

"An act to authorize Samuel Wiggins to establish a Ferry upon the Waters of the Mississippi. Approved March 2, 1819."

"SEC. 1. Be it enacted by the people of the State of Illinois, represented in the general assembly, that Samuel Wiggins, his heirs and assigns, be, and they are hereby, authorized to establish a ferry on the waters of the Mississippi near the Town of Illinois in this state, and to run the same from lands at the said place that may belong to him. Provided that he shall not use any boat or watercraft, except such as shall be propelled or urged to the water by steam, horses, oxen, or other four-footed animals. Provided that the said Samuel Wiggins, his heirs and assigns, shall have the said ferry in actual operation within eighteen months from and after the passage of this act."

"SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, that no person or persons except those who have ferries now established at this place shall establish any ferry of the description aforesaid within one mile of the ferry established under this act. And if any person or persons shall, contrary to the provisions of this act, run any boat or boats of the description aforesaid, he, she, or they shall forfeit every such boat, with its furniture and apparel, to the said Samuel Wiggins, his heirs and assigns, which may be attached and recovered before any court in this state having competent jurisdiction."

"SEC. 3. And be it further enacted that it shall and may be lawful for the said Samuel Wiggins, his heirs or assigns, to demand and receive the same rates of ferriage as are now of right demandable at the ferry established nearest to the ferry authorized to be established by this act. Provided that no more shall be charged for a wagon, cart, or other carriage, if loaded, than could be charged if empty."

"SEC. 4. And be it further enacted that the ferry hereby established shall be subject to the same taxes as are now or hereafter

Page 49 U. S. 571

may be, imposed on other ferries within this state, and under the same regulations and forfeitures. And that if the provisions of the second section of this act shall be made to appear to the general assembly to be injurious to the public good, that then, and in such case, the said second section may be repealed."

At the date of this act, Wiggins did not own any land near the Town of Illinois; but within the time allowed by the act for the establishment of the ferry, he purchased a tract of land of one hundred acres and established the ferry with boats propelled by horses, according to the terms of the act.

He increased the means of transportation as the public wants required, and changed the boats employed from boats propelled by horses to boats propelled by steam so as to comply with the letter and spirit of his contract with the State of Illinois and meet all the demands of the increasing population and commerce.

The bill claims that under this Act of 2 March, 1819, Samuel Wiggins, his heirs and assigns, were entitled to the perpetual franchise of maintaining a ferry across the Mississippi from any point near the Town of Illinois, upon any land that might at any time belong to him or them.

The bill states that the bank of the Mississippi opposite the Town of St. Louis is an alluvial formation which is continually falling into the stream, and that the character of the stream is such that, by reason of the frequent changes in the channel, the sudden formation of sandbars, and the falling of the banks, it became necessary for Wiggins, in order to fulfill his contract with the State of Illinois, to acquire title to a large space of land on the bank of the river in order to change the place of landing as the changes in the river and in its banks might require.

The Legislature of Illinois, appreciating this necessity and recognizing the franchise as perpetual, passed an Act on 6 February, 1821, the essential parts of which were as follows:

"An act to authorize Samuel Wiggins to make a Turnpike Road, and for other Purposes. Approved February 6, 1861."

"SEC. 1. Be it enacted by the people of the State of Illinois, represented in the general assembly, that Samuel Wiggins, his heirs or assigns be and hereby are authorized to make and construct a turnpike road, of one hundred feet wide, to commerce on the Mississippi River, opposite to St. Louis,

Page 49 U. S. 572

on lands that may belong to him, to run thence across the American Bottom to the bluffs within two miles of George Swaggart's, and to construct and erect all necessary bridges on said road, and that he or they be and are hereby authorized to build and make said turnpike road through the lands of any person or persons whomsoever, except yards, gardens, orchards, or dwelling houses; that when the aforesaid road is about to be carried through any improved land, the maker of said road shall first obtain the consent of the proprietor or proprietors of said grounds, and should the parties not agree on the amount of said damages, then a jury of six reputable freeholders should be summoned, and being duly sworn before any justice of the peace of the county faithfully and impartially to assess the damages, which damages shall be paid before the said road shall be permitted to pass through such grounds."

"And whereas the said Samuel Wiggins, his heirs and assigns, were authorized to establish a ferry upon the waters of the Mississippi River near the Town of Illinois in this state, and a sandbar having been formed since that time opposite said ferry, therefore:"

"SEC. 5. Be it further enacted that the said Samuel Wiggins, his heirs and assigns, be and they are hereby authorized to remove said ferry on any land that may belong to him or them on the said Mississippi River under the same privileges as were prescribed by the act entitled 'An Act to authorize Samuel Wiggins to establish a ferry upon the waters of the Mississippi,' approved March 2, 1819."

On 13 July, 1822, Wiggins acquired title to a tract of four hundred acres of land adjoining the tract from which he first ran his ferry. The tract so acquired is situated on the bank of the river below his first tract, and was necessary to the owners of the ferry franchise in order to secure a convenient landing of the boats as changes occurred in the channel or in the bank of the river.

The bill states sundry conveyances and descents by which the complainants have become invested with the title to all the land held by said Wiggins and with the franchise granted by the State of Illinois.

It is also averred that Wiggins, while the owner of the franchise, fulfilled all the duties and obligations which he had assumed under his contract with the State of Illinois, and that his assignees, owners of said franchise, have ever since his transfer of the franchise in like manner fully discharged those duties; that speedy, secure, and comfortable passage has been

Page 49 U. S. 573

at all times afforded for all persons and property offered to be crossed over the river in such vessels only as are required by the act granting the franchise.

The bill then states an Act of the Legislature of the State of Illinois approved on 2 March, 1839, by which commissioners were appointed to locate a road and ferry landing between Cahokia Creek and the Mississippi River, opposite St. Louis; the road and ferry landing to be three hundred feet wide, upon the most eligible ground for the purpose. This act authorized the County Commissioners' Court of St. Clair County to cause the land on which the road and ferry landing should be located to be condemned, and pay the owners of the land the damages, and after such payment the said court should have power to enter upon the land so condemned and establish a ferry across the Mississippi River, and might either carry on the ferry for the county itself or lease it for any term not exceeding five years to any lessees.

The commissioners thus appointed located the road and ferry landing, three hundred feet wide, upon the land which Wiggins acquired in July, 1822, and which was conveyed by him with the franchise.

The land was condemned, and its value estimated at six hundred dollars, being less than the annual ground rent which it would produce without any connection with any ferry privilege.

In estimating the damages to be paid, the jury was expressly directed to confine its estimate of the damages to the value of the land itself, and not to consider any interference with the ferry franchise of the complainants as a subject of compensation.

The bill states that the County of St. Clair, through its agents, entered upon and took in possession the said lands so condemned, and has leased the same, together with the ferry authorized by the said act of 1839, to James Harrison at a yearly rent of $800, and that a ferry has been established from said land to the City of St. Louis. The rates of ferriage charged by said Harrison are fixed in his lease, exhibited with the bill, as exhibit S. No. 18.

The complainants aver that the land so taken from them is a part of their ferry landing, as authorized by the two acts of the legislature under which they claim, and that the land so taken is indispensable to the exercise of the franchise with which they are invested. From time to time they have been compelled to change their place of landing as the changes in the river and its banks and sandbars required, so that the whole

Page 49 U. S. 574

front on the river has been necessary to the enjoyment of their franchise and the performance of their duty, and that the said land so taken from them is not only the most convenient point on their land for their ferry landing, but is the only point where boats can securely be landed without running far up the stream, so as to make their trip about twelve hundred yards longer than if they still owned and could use the land so taken from them.

The complainants allege that the Act of the Legislature of Illinois of March 2, 1839, authorizing the taking of a part of their ferry landing, is a violation of the first clause of the tenth section of the first article of the Constitution of the United States, which prohibits the states from passing laws impairing the obligation of contracts.

The bill prays for an injunction to restrain the defendants from maintaining a ferry from the land so taken from the complainants.

To this bill there was a demurrer, which was sustained by the Circuit Court of St. Clair County and the bill dismissed. An appeal was taken to the supreme court, and the decree of the circuit court affirmed.

From this decree of the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois a writ of error brought the case up to this Court.

It was argued by Mr. Gamble and Mr. Webster, for the plaintiffs in error, and Mr. Breeze, for the defendants.

Page 49 U. S. 579

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