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U.S. Supreme Court

Northern Pacific R. Co. v. Traill County, 115 U.S. 600 (1885)

Northern Pacific Railroad Company v. Traill County

Submitted November 17, 1885

Decided December 7, 1885

115 U.S. 600


The provisions in the Act of July 17, 1870, 16 Stat. 291 (on page 305), that the lands granted to the Northern Pacific Railroad Company by the act of July 2, 1864, 13 Stat. 365, shall not be conveyed to the company or any party entitled thereto

"until there shall first be paid into the Treasury of

Page 115 U. S. 601

the United States the cost of surveying, selecting, and conveying the same by the company or party in interest"

exempts these lands from state or territorial taxation until such payment is made into the Treasury.

The Northern Pacific Railroad Company has acquired no equitable interest in the lands so granted to it by reason of completing its road and thus earning the granted lands, which is subject to state or territorial taxation before such payment is made into the Treasury of the United States.

When an act granting public lands to aid in the construction of a railroad provides that patents shall issue from time to time, as sections of the road are completed, but reserves to Congress the right at any time "to add to, alter, amend, or repeal this act, . . . having due regard for the rights of the company," Congress may, without violating the Constitution of the United States, by subsequent act passed before any of the road is constructed or any of the land earned, require the cost of surveying, selecting, and conveying the land to be paid into the Treasury of the United States before the conveyance of the granted lands to any party entitled thereto.

The principles on which Railway Co. v. Prescott, 16 Wall. 603, and Railway Co. v. McShane, 22 Wall. 444, were decided, are restated, so far as they are applied to this case.

Suit to enjoin the collection of taxes levied upon lands of plaintiff in error. A jury being waived, the court made a finding of facts of which the following are the material ones in view of the opinion of the Court.

First. That the plaintiff is a corporation duly organized and existing under that certain Act of Congress, approved July 2, 1864, entitled

"An Act granting land to aid in the construction of a railroad and telegraph line from Lake Superior to Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast by the northern route, and under those certain subsequent acts and joint resolutions of Congress relating to the same subject matter."

Second. That in and by the said Act of July 2, 1864, among other things, it is provided as follows:

"And be it further enacted that there be and hereby is granted to the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, its successors and assigns, for the purpose of aiding in the construction of said railroad and telegraph line, . . . alternate sections of public land, not mineral, designated by odd numbers, to the amount of 20 alternate sections per mile on each side of said railroad line as said company may adopt, through the territory of the United States, and 10 alternate sections of land per mile on each side of said railroad whenever it passes through any

Page 115 U. S. 602


etc. Then follow the conditions subsequent to be performed by the said railroad company to give it a complete title to the said lands, and to a patent as the evidence of such title.

By an Act of Congress approved July 15, 1870, among other things, appropriating money for the survey of the public lands within the limits of the land grant of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, it is provided

"that before any land granted to said company by the United States shall be conveyed to any party entitled thereto under any of the acts incorporating or relating to said company, there shall first be paid into the Treasury of the United States the cost of surveying, selecting, and conveying the same by the said company or party in interest."

Third. That under and in pursuance of said several acts and resolutions of Congress, the plaintiff has built and caused to be built and put in operation a continuous line of railroad and telegraph extending from the waters of Lake Superior, at Duluth, in the State of Minnesota, westerly across the said state and across the Territory of Dakota to and beyond the Missouri River, and of the character and materials specified in the said acts, and everything has been done by the said railroad company required by the terms of the grant to enable the said company to acquire a complete and perfect title to the lands in controversy in this action except as respects the payment of the cost of survey, &c., required by the Act of July 15, 1870, above mentioned. All that part of the said railroad within the Territory of Dakota has been located and built since July 15, 1870. The government of the United States, since the passage of the said Act of Congress of July 15, 1870, has

Page 115 U. S. 603

caused the lands described in the complaint to be surveyed at its own expense, no part of which has ever been repaid it by said company. The patents for the said lands described in the complaint, or any of them, have never been issued to the said railroad company, or to any person for said company, and the government refuses to issue said patents until the payment for survey and selecting the said lands, as above mentioned, and required by said law of 1870, has been made.

Fourth. That the lands mentioned and described in the schedule annexed to the plaintiff's complaint and made a part thereof were, at the time said acts were passed, and the said railroad located through the Territory of Dakota, a part of the public domain of the United States, and not any part of the right of way mentioned in said act, and had never been sold, reserved, granted, or otherwise appropriated except as above mentioned, and were free of preemption and other rights, and were situated within a distance of 40 miles of the line of the plaintiff's said railroad.

Fifth. That in the year 1880, the officers of the said County of Traill authorized by the laws of this territory to assess property therein for the purposes of taxation and to levy taxes therein, assessed and levied taxes upon said land for that year amounting in the aggregate to about the sum of $2,000, all of which remain unpaid, and which the plaintiff refused and still refuses to pay, and the defendant Iver L. Rockne, who is County Treasurer of said County of Traill, did advertise and give public notice that on a certain day and place, to-wit, on the first Monday in October, 1881, he would sell the said lands according to law for the nonpayment of the said taxes and for the collection of the same.

Judgment for defendant, which was affirmed on appeal in the supreme court of the territory. Plaintiff below appealed to this Court.

Page 115 U. S. 606

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