The Lady Pike,
88 U.S. 1 (1874)

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U.S. Supreme Court

The Lady Pike, 88 U.S. 21 Wall. 1 1 (1874)

The Lady Pike

88 U.S. (21 Wall.) 1


1. Though on appeals in admiralty involving issues of fact alone this Court will not, except in a clear case, reverse where both the district and the circuit court have agreed in their conclusions, yet in a clear case it will reverse even in such circumstances.

2. The master of a steamer which undertakes to tow boats up and down a river where piers of bridges impede the navigation is bound to know the width of his steamers and their tows and whether, when lashed together, he can run them safely between piers through which he attempts to pass. He is bound also, if it is necessary for his safe navigation in the places where he chooses to be, to know how the currents set about the piers in different heights of the water, and to know whether at high water his steamers and their tows will safely pass over an obstruction which, in low water, they could not pass over.

3. The owners of steamers undertaking to tow vessels are responsible for accidents the result of want of proper knowledge on the part of their captains of the difficulties of navigation in the river in which the steamers ply.

The Germania Insurance Company had insured a cargo of wheat, laden on a barge at Shockopee, on the Minnesota River, and about to be towed by the steamer Lady Pike down that river to its junction with the Mississippi, thence down the Mississippi to Savannah, Illinois, "unavoidable dangers of the river . . . only excepted."

The cargo was laden on the barge, and the transportation

Page 88 U. S. 2

of it begun. In the course of the voyage, however, the barge was wrecked. The insurance company paid the loss and, alleging that the barge had been wrecked owing to the negligent manner in which the steamer had towed her, filed a libel against the steamer to recover what had been paid for the loss. The owners of the steamer set up that the wrecking had been caused by an "unavoidable danger of the river," and was therefore within the dangers from which they had excepted themselves. And whether the catastrophe was caused by an "unavoidable danger of the river" or by the steamer's negligence was the question.

The case was thus:

In April, 1866, there stood in the Mississippi River, just above St. Paul's, certain piers of a bridge then in process of construction, beginning on the west side of the river and numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5; pier No. 3 (a turn-table pier) being so far unfinished as that when the river was high, barges like that on which this wheat was laden could pass in safety over it, though when the water was low, they could not. In low water, the pier was exposed. Owing to a gravel point on the west side of the river which projected itself a little way into the stream and against which the water struck, the current, in high water especially, rebounded and ran diagonally across the piers towards the east shore, so that "a boat in going between piers No. 3 and No. 4 would drift from four to six feet towards pier No. 4." Hills bounded each side of the river for many miles along its course, with occasional openings, or "coolies" as the navigators call them, through which winds blow, that at other places on the river are arrested by the hills. One of the openings or coolies existed on the west side of the river opposite to these piers. The space between piers No. 3 and No. 4 when No. 3 was above the water was about 116 feet; that between No. 2 and No. 4 (when No. 3 was below the water) was 264 feet; that between No. 4 and No. 5 was 151 feet. The main part of the channel was between No. 3 and No. 4; there was the draw of the bridge, and it was between those piers that boats and tows going down the river, and sufficiently

Page 88 U. S. 3

narrow to pass through in safety, usually went. The passage between No. 4 and No. 5 was at one time obstructed by a sunken barge, but this was after the time of the transit now under consideration. That passage -- the passage between No. 4 and No. 5 -- at this time was clear and of sufficient depth for the Lady Pike and her tow to have passed in safety.

In this state of things, it was -- the rivers Minnesota and Mississippi being at the time full with the spring waters -- that the Lady Pike, a stern-wheel steamer, "a high boat, which would catch a good deal of wind on her sides," set off from her moorings with three barges in tow, laden with six hundred tons of wheat -- a tow which was to be styled a heavy two. One barge, larger than the other two, was lashed on one side and the remaining two upon the other.

The width of all the vessels, steamer, and barges when close alongside each other was 105 feet. They were all stanch, and the steamer abundantly provided with men, including two master mariners and two pilots. Scudding clouds prevented the day from being absolutely clear, and "puffs, gusts, or squalls of wind" came up from time to time. These had "bothered" the pilot nowhere, however, in a way worth mentioning, and the vessels had had no trouble except a little in going between the piers of another bridge higher up the stream, between which, however, they had got safely.

On approaching the piers just above St. Paul of which we are now principally speaking -- the vessels being under a headway of about seven miles an hour -- no squall then blowing, and no "slow bell" having been sounded, the pilot of the steamer, judging by his eye, and thus judging, being under the impression that he could do so safely, attempted to run his steamer and its tow between piers No. 3 and No. 4. He was apparently ignorant of the exact width of his steamer and its tow, ignorant also of the exact distance between the two piers, and ignorant besides of the fact that in the then height of the water, he could have run over pier No. 3; and ignorant in addition or not appreciative of the diagonal effect of the current as it set in high water between

Page 88 U. S. 4

the piers. The result was that one of the barges struck pier No. 4 and was wrecked.

The captain and other officers of the steamer swore that just as they were going through the piers, a squall arose and drove the barge against the pier; that the accident arose through no negligence, and was an unavoidable danger of the river.

The district court held that this was the true view of the case, and dismissed the libel. The circuit court affirmed the decree, and the case was now brought here by the insurance company for review.

Page 88 U. S. 8

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