Bates v. Illinois Central Railroad Company
66 U.S. 204 (1861)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Bates v. Illinois Central Railroad Company, 66 U.S. 1 Black 204 204 (1861)

Bates v. Illinois Central Railroad Company

66 U.S. (1 Black) 204

Syllabus

1. In ejectment for land bounded by a river which has changed its bed and formed a new channel since the date of the survey, it is proper for the court to let the jury find whether the land in controversy is within the tract surveyed and granted.

2. The jury is bound to find the river boundary to be where the plat of the survey and the field notes have designated it, though in fact the river had at the time of the survey another channel through which its waters generally flowed.

3. It is not material in such a case where the most usual channel of the river was, nor whether the channel recognized in the survey and field notes was natural or artificial, constant or occasional.

4. The public, by the act of the proper officer, had a right to fix and declare the place of the river for the purposes of a survey and sale of the lands, and a grantee cannot contradict the survey and claim be yond it by showing that the true channel of the river was really at another place.

5. This Court will not decide what are the rights of lake shore proprietors whose fronts are swept away by the currents, nor to what extent they still own the lands covered with water, except in the case of one who proves that he owned the land before the decretion took place. Until the party shows his ownership of the shore, all inquiry respecting his rights in or under the waters adjoining is speculative and useless.

This was ejectment in the circuit court brought by George C. Bates against the Illinois Central Railroad company for a parcel of land called the "Sand Bar," now covered with water, and which the plaintiff alleged in his declaration was a part of the north fraction of section 10, town 9, in the City of Chicago.

The plaintiff's title to the north fraction of section ten was not contested. The section was surveyed by public authority in 1821. This fraction was preempted in 1831 by Robert A. Kinzie, to whom a patent for it according to the survey was issued in 1837. The plaintiff held Kinzie's title.

Page 66 U. S. 205

But the defendant denied that the Sand Bar in dispute was within the proper limits of the plaintiff's fraction. The Chicago River is one of the boundaries called for by the survey and patent. Great changes have taken place in the bed and mouth of the river during thirty years. What these changes were and when they took place were subjects on which must evidence was given by both parties. If the bed and mouth of the river were at the place where they are laid down in the plat of the survey and mentioned in the field notes, then the plaintiff's tract did not include the Sand Bar for which he brought suit. The circuit court left it to the jury to say, as matter of fact, what were the true boundaries of the tract and whether the Sand Bar was or was not included by them.

Previous to the erection of the piers in Chicago harbor, which commenced in 1833, the land in controversy was dry, but afterwards the currents created by those piers washed it away, and it gradually sunk beneath the waters of the lake. The plaintiff asserted as matter of law that his title was not changed or divested by that fact. The court charged the jury that, assuming the plaintiff to be the owner of the land when it was above water, if he suffered it to be gradually washed away until it was entirely covered, and then permitted it to remain an open roadstead for more than seven years, the title became vested in the public, and he could not recover.

To these rulings of the circuit court exceptions were taken, and the verdict and judgment being for the defendant, the plaintiff brought the cause up to the Supreme Court by writ of error.

Upon the point last mentioned -- namely the destruction of the plaintiff's title by the action of the water and by his failure to reclaim it from the bottom of the lake for more than seven years -- the arguments here were very elaborate. But it will be seen by the opinion of MR. JUSTICE CATRON that the cause turned entirely on the question of boundary, which was submitted to the jury and found against the plaintiff on evidence regarded as conclusive.

Page 66 U. S. 206

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