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U.S. Supreme Court

Cardwell v. American Bridge Co., 113 U.S. 205 (1885)

Cardwell v. American Bridge Company

Submitted January 6, 1885

Decided January 19, 1885

113 U.S. 205


The doctrine that, in the absence of legislation by Congress, a state may authorize a navigable stream within its limits to be obstructed by a bridge or highway reasserted, and the former cases to that effect referred to.

The provision in the act admitting California

"That all the navigable waters within the said state shall be common highways and forever free, as well to the inhabitants of said state as to the citizens of the United States, without any tax, impost, or duty therefor"

does not deprive the state of the power possessed by other states, in the absence of legislation by Congress, to authorize the erection of bridges over navigable waters within the state. That provision aims to prevent the use of the navigable streams by private parties to the exclusion of the public and the exaction of tolls for their navigation.

Bill in equity, for the removal of a bridge erected by the defendant in error over the American River in California, below the lands of the plaintiff in error situate on that river.

The American River is a branch of the Sacramento River in California. It is entirely within the state, and navigable for small steamboats and barges from its mouth to the Town of Folsom, a distance of thirty miles. By its junction with the Sacramento River, vessels starting upon it can proceed to the Bay of San Francisco and thence to adjoining states and foreign countries. It is therefore a navigable water of the United States and, as such, is under the control of the general government in the exercise of its power to regulate foreign and interstate commerce so far as may be necessary to insure its free navigation.

The defendant is a corporation organized under the laws of California and, pursuant to the authority conferred by an act of its legislature, has constructed a bridge over the American River, of twenty feet in width and three hundred feet in length, which is used as a roadway across the stream. Its floor is about fourteen feet above extreme low water and about five feet above extreme high water, and the bridge is

Page 113 U. S. 206

without a draw or opening for the passage of vessels. Steamboats and other craft are therefore obstructed by it in the navigation of the river.

The complainant alleges that he is the owner of a large tract of land, bordering on the river below Folsom, and raises many tons of grain each year; that he is also the owner of a steamboat and other vessels by which he could ship his grain down the river but for the obstruction caused by the bridge; that there are also large quarries of granite on his land sufficient to supply the markets of Sacramento and San Francisco for years, and also large deposits of cobblestone which have a value for paving, and, but for the obstruction, he could ship the granite and cobblestone by his vessels and sell them at a profit, whereas the expense of sending them by rail or other means open to him are such as to deprive him of all profit on them. He therefore files his bill against the company and prays that it may be enjoined from maintaining the bridge across the river until a draw shall have been placed in it sufficient to allow steamboats, vessels, and watercraft capable of navigating the stream to pass and repass freely and safely. A demurrer to the bill was sustained and the bill dismissed, and the case is brought here on appeal.

Page 113 U. S. 208

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