The Blackwall
77 U.S. 1 (1869)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

The Blackwall, 77 U.S. 10 Wall. 1 1 (1869)

The Blackwall

77 U.S. (10 Wall.) 1

Syllabus

l A libel for salvage may be filed in the name of the master and owners of the salving vessel, although the master may make no claim in his own behalf, but, contrariwise, may disclaim.

2. A tug towing, under the direction of the fire department of a city, fire engines commonly used on land from a wharf into a harbor where a vessel is on fire, and laying alongside of the burning vessel while the engines throw water upon her, is entitled to salvage, the fire being successfully extinguished.

3. The owners of the tug will not be deprived of salvage because the representatives of the fire department have not made a claim as co-salvors.

4. A vessel owned by a corporation may be entitled to salvage, the vessel being otherwise a salvor. The Camanche, 8 Wall. 476, affirmed on this point.

5. One-twentieth part of the value of the property saved allowed to a tug carrying fire engines, and laying beside a burning vessel while the engines, under the management of the fire department of the town, worked them and extinguished the fire. This reversed a decree which had allowed a tenth for her salvage service, the fire department having presented no claim, no allowance having been made to it, and the tenth allowed having apparently been an allowance for the whole salvage service.

6. Non-prosecution of their claim by one set of salvors enures to the benefit of the owners of the vessel, and not to that of other salvors who do prosecute their claim.

Page 77 U. S. 2

About 4 o'clock on the morning of the 24th of August, 1867, the British ship Blackwall, then at anchor in the harbor of San Francisco, was discovered to be on fire. Shortly afterwards, the alarm was communicated to the shore, and the fire department of the city called out. As soon as the cause of the alarm was ascertained, the chief engineer of the fire department, with an officer of the harbor police, proceeded to the steam tug Goliah then lying at one of the city's wharves and belonging to an incorporated towing company of San Francisco, and having aroused the person in charge, requested him to "fire up" without delay in order that the engines might be conveyed on the tug to the burning vessel. This, after a few moments' hesitation, arising it was plain from reluctance to act without orders, he proceeded to do. Messengers were dispatched to the captain and engineer of the tug, who were asleep at their homes on shore, and every effort made to get steam on the tug as quickly as possible. The captain and engineer were aroused, and at once repaired to the wharf. It being found impracticable for the tug to go into the slip where the fire engines lay, two of the latter were brought around to the wharf where the tug was and taken across the deck of a steamboat which lay between the wharf and the tug, and so on to the tug with promptitude and skill. About 6 o'clock, the tug, with two engines on board, together with the firemen &c. attached to them, moved from the wharf, and in a few minutes were alongside the ship. The fire had by this time made considerable progress. The house on deck between the fore and mizzen masts was on fire, and the flames were mounting nearly half way to the tops. The ship was also burning between decks, where the fire first originated. The officers and crew, though assisted by a party from the United States ship Lawrence, having found all attempts to subdue the flames abortive, had desisted from further efforts and had, a few moments before the Goliah arrived, left the vessel with their effects in small boats. Without speedy assistance, the total destruction of the ship and cargo was inevitable. The measures of the firemen and officers of the tug were taken with great

Page 77 U. S. 3

skill and energy. The hose of the engines was charged as the tug approached the vessel, and as soon as she was near enough, four streams were directed upon her. The tug, without hesitation or delay, was made fast alongside the Blackwall. The firemen almost instantly mounted her rails, went thence to her forecastle, and from thence to her deck, sweeping the latter with four powerful streams, by which the fire was speedily controlled. They then descended to her between decks, and in a little more than half an hour the flames were entirely extinguished. Her anchor was then weighed by the advice of the captain of the tug, and the vessel was towed to certain flats near one of the city's wharves. The tug was then dismissed, and the engines were taken to the shore and landed.

As to the degree of danger incurred by the tug there was some conflict of testimony. That she was promptly and boldly laid alongside the burning vessel was undisputed. That she caught fire once or twice was proved, although this fire was instantly extinguished, and with the powerful appliances she had on board the danger from this cause was perhaps not great.

The chief risk incurred by her was from the falling of the masts or spars of the vessel. An accident of this kind, had it occurred, might have proved disastrous to the tug, and perhaps to many on board. The danger was not supposed to arise from the burning of the shrouds, for they were of wire, but from the fact of the mast seeming consumed by the fire, which had been burning between decks for several hours. As a matter of fact, it was found on subsequent examination that the mast was but little burnt, and was in no danger of falling. And the chief engineer of the fire department testified that he became convinced very soon after getting on board that all fears of the masts falling were groundless. These fears were, however, entertained and expressed not only by the officers of the tug, but by the pilot and by the mate of the ship, so much so that axes were got in readiness to cut away the shrouds on the port side of the vessel in order that the mast might fall to the other side.

Page 77 U. S. 4

It is also to be observed that the tug encountered the risk of the possible existence of explosive substances on board the vessel, and also, though this risk was slight, that of her own machinery or that of the fire engines becoming unserviceable while she lay alongside the vessel.

The tug, however, was not the sole salvor. Without her assistance, indeed, the fire engines would have been powerless to save the ship, but without these engines, on the other hand, the tug's aid would have been just as ineffectual.

In this state of facts, the towing corporation, which was owner of the tug, and one Clark, her master, filed a libel against the ship and cargo in the district court at San Francisco for salvage. The libel alleged that the ship was on fire; that the cargo as well as the ship was in great danger, and that both would have been destroyed had it not been for the exertions of the steam tug, her master, and crew; that the master and crew went with the steam tug to the assistance of the ship, and that they succeeded, after great trouble and great risk to the tug, in quelling and subduing the flames, and that they then towed the ship to a place of safety. The fire department was no party to the libel, and in his testimony the master stated that his name was used in the libel only for the company owning the tug, and that he himself claimed no interest. The value of the ship and cargo, so far as saved, was $100,000; the value of the tug about $50,000. The district court decreed "that libellants do have and recover of the claimants $10,000 with their costs," and this decree having been affirmed in the circuit court, the owners of the Blackwall now appealed to this Court.

Page 77 U. S. 8

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