The Chattahoochee,
173 U.S. 540 (1899)

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U.S. Supreme Court

The Chattahoochee, 173 U.S. 540 (1899)

The Chattahoochee

No. 27

Argued March 6, 1899

Decided April 3, 1899

173 U.S. 540


The Golden Rule, a Canadian topsail schooner with twelve sails, all of which with a small exception she was carrying, was sailing off Nantucket Shoals at a speed of seven knots an hour, in a fog so dense that the hull of another vessel could not be seen more than a few hundred feet off. The Chattahoochee, an American steamer, came up at an angle in the opposite direction with a speed of ten or twelve knots an hour. The schooner was sounding a foghorn, and the steamer a steam whistle. When the steam whistle was heard on the schooner, she kept on her way at full speed. When the foghorn was heard on the steamer, order was given and obeyed to stop and reverse, and the wheel was put hard-a-port. Upon seeing the schooner, the steamship engines were put at full speed ahead for the purpose of clearing it, but a collision took place and the schooner sank almost immediately. The sunken vessel had a valuable cargo on board. It was held below that both vessels were in fault for immoderate speed, and the district court, ruling that the damages should be divided, made a decree respecting such division which was modified by the court of appeals as hereafter stated.


(1) That there can be no doubt as to the liability of the steamer, and, as no appeal was taken on her part, she is estopped from denying that liability here.

(2) That the schooner also was proceeding at an immoderate speed, and was properly condemned therefor, and the cases bearing

Page 173 U. S. 541

upon the question of what is immoderate speed in a sailing vessel under such circumstances are cited and reviewed.

(3) That the court of appeals did not err in deducting half the value of the cargo from half the value of the sunken schooner, and in limiting a recovery to the difference between these values, and in reaching this conclusion, the court cites and reviews several cases, in deciding which the act known as the Harter Act has been considered and applied.

The Golden Rule was a topsail schooner hailing from Liverpool, Nova Scotia, of about 200 tons burden, and rigged with twelve sails, including one double square sail on the foremast. Her length over all was 110 feet. She was bound on a voyage from Porto Rico to Boston with a full cargo of sugar and molasses, and at the time of the collision, was sailing on her port tack, upon a course north by east, one-half east, with a free and fresh wind five to six points abaft the beam. She was under full sail, except one-half of the square sail forward, which was taken in about two hours before the collision. Her speed was the main point in dispute. At the time of the collision, the weather was foggy, the wind blowing in moderate breezes from the southwest, and the mate was sounding a mechanical foghorn forward.

The Chattahoochee was an iron screw steamship of 1,887 tons burden, 300 feet in length, and running on a line between Boston and Savannah. She left Boston in the afternoon of the 19th, and, when off Cape Cod, her master, owing to the foggy weather, decided to take the outside passage by Nantucket, instead of her regular course through Vineyard Sound. The outside course was much clearer of vessels. Before the collision, the steamship was eighteen miles off the South Shoal lightship, on a course southwest half west, proceeding at her full speed of from ten to twelve knots an hour, and blowing her whistle at the statutory intervals after 12:30 o'clock. The

Page 173 U. S. 542

master and the first officer, with the quartermaster, were in the pilot house, and a man was on the lookout forward.

From the above statement, it will be seen that the two vessels were approaching upon courses which converged at an angle of about three points.

The officers of the schooner heard the steamship's whistle from two to four points off the starboard bow, a fact which was duly reported to the officer of the deck. The whistles of the steamship continued to be heard on the starboard bow until she came in sight some four or five lengths off, the schooner keeping her course and speed until the collision.

The master and lookout of the steamship heard the fog signal of the schooner about two minutes before the collision, apparently a point off their port bow. The order was immediately given, and obeyed, to stop, and afterwards to reverse, and the wheel was put hard-a-port in order to locate the sound. When they first saw the sails of the schooner, they bore one and one-half points on the port bow of the steamer. During this time, the helm of the steamer was hard-a-port. Upon seeing the schooner, the steamship, which was then swinging to starboard under her port helm, ordered her engines full speed ahead for the purpose of clearing the schooner. The schooner kept her course, and the vessels came together at an angle of four points, the steamship striking the schooner forward of the foremast on the starboard side, sinking her almost immediately. The collision resulted in a total loss of the schooner, with all her cargo and property on board. The steamship was uninjured.

The district court was of opinion that both vessels were in fault for immoderate speed, and that the damages should be divided.

Damages were awarded to the libelants, as bailees for the owners of the cargo, to the amount of $17,215.17, and to the libelants, as owners of the vessel and for the value of certain personal effects of the crew, in one-half the total amount of their loss, namely, $9,205.45, and it was further ordered that the owners of the steamship might recoup from the said amount of $9,205.45 the sum of $8,607.58, being one-half of the

Page 173 U. S. 543

total damages to the cargo. An execution was ordered against the claimants of the steamship and its stipulators for the sum of $597.87, this being the difference between half the value of the schooner and the personal effects of the crew and half the value of the cargo, for which the schooner was thus held responsible.

Upon appeal to the circuit court of appeals, that court affirmed the decree of the district court upon the merits, but modified the same with reference to the distribution between the owners and master of the Golden Rule, on the one side, and her mate and crew, on the other, finding that as neither the mate nor her crew were responsible for any fault in her navigation, the several sums awarded the mate and crew should have priority over the amounts awarded the owners and master. 74 F. 899.

Whereupon an application was made to this Court by the libelants for a writ of certiorari, which was granted.

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