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U.S. Supreme Court

Roberts v. Northern Pacific R. Co., 158 U.S. 1 (1895)

Roberts v. Northern Pacific Railroad Company

No. 124

Argued December 17-18, 1894

Decided April 22, 1895

158 U.S. 1


Where a railroad company, having the power of eminent domain, has entered into actual possession of lands necessary for its corporate purposes, whether with or without the consent of their owner, a subsequent vendee of the latter takes the land subject to the burthen of the railroad, and the right to payment from the railroad company, if it entered by virtue of an agreement to pay, or to damages if the entry was unauthorized, belongs to the owner at the time the railroad company took possession. If a land owner, knowing that a railroad company has entered upon his land, and is engaged in constructing its road without having complied with a statute requiring either payment by agreement or proceedings to condemn, remains inactive and permits it to go on and expend large sums in the work, he is estopped from maintaining either trespass or ejectment for the entry, and will be regarded as having acquiesced therein, and will be restricted to a suit for damages.

So far as it was within the power of the State of Wisconsin, through and by its legislature, to authorize the County of Douglas, in that state, to contract with the Northern Pacific Railroad Company for the construction of its road within that county on a designated line, and to establish

Page 158 U. S. 2

a lake terminus within the same, and upon the fulfillment of those conditions to convey to it certain of its unsettled public lands, that power was conferred and the contract between the county and the railroad company in respect thereof was ratified by the Act of March 23, 1883, and if there was any want of regularity in the proceedings of the county, it was thereby waived and corrected.

Said grant was made on a valuable consideration, which was fully performed when the railroad company had constructed its road and had established the lake terminus in the county as it had contracted to do, and the company then became entitled to a conveyance of the lands, and so far as the Supreme Court of Wisconsin can be regarded as having held to the contrary, the courts of the United States are not bound to follow its decision when applied to a corporation created by an act of Congress for national purposes and for interstate commerce.

Error cannot be imputed to a court for refusing to allow an amendment or supplement to an answer after the case had progressed to a final hearing, nor to its judgment in disregarding the allegations of such proposed amendment.

Applying to this case the rules in regard to estoppel laid down in Cromwell v. Sac County, 94 U. S. 352, it is held that the question or point actually litigated in the state court in Ellis v. Northern Pacific Railroad, 77 Wis. 114, was not the same with those before the federal court in this case, and hence, as the causes of action in the two courts were not the same, the judgment in the state court, while it might determine the controversy between the parties to it as respects the pieces of land there in question, would not be conclusive in another action upon a different claim or demand.

This was a bill in equity filed in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Western District of Wisconsin in December, 1889, by the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, a corporation organized under and by virtue of an Act of Congress approved July 2, 1864, against David E. Roberts, J. F. Ellis, and Euclid L. Johnson, wherein the complainant sought to quiet its title to certain lands in Douglas County, Wisconsin.

The railroad company claimed title to the lands in question under an agreement of purchase and a deed of conveyance from the County of Douglas. The defendants set up a title under a subsequent deed of conveyance from the same county. After certain pleas and demurrers on behalf of the defendants Roberts and Ellis were overruled, the case was disposed of on bill and answer, and a final decree was rendered in favor

Page 158 U. S. 3

of the complainant against Roberts and Ellis and dismissing the bill without prejudice as to Johnson, from which decree an appeal was taken by Roberts and Ellis to this Court.

The record discloses that an agreement was made on December 16, 1880, between the Northern Pacific Railroad Company and the county supervisors of Douglas County whereby the former undertook to construct, complete, and equip its line of railroad through Douglas County by a route proposed by the county and to erect certain wharves and docks to make a connection between the railroad and Lake Superior, and in consideration of this the county agreed to sell and convey certain parcels of land which the county had become possessed of by sales for unpaid taxes.

On January 16, 1882, the county board, by resolution, after reciting that the railroad company had complied with the terms of the agreement, authorized a deed of conveyance of the lands to be executed and delivered to the company. In the deed there was an acknowledgment of the receipt of one dollar in hand paid, and of the performance by the company of its part of the agreement. This deed, dated January 20, 1882, was duly recorded in the office of the Register of Deeds of Douglas County.

The bill alleged that the company had expended in the construction of the main line from the Northern Pacific junction through Douglas County to Superior, and in the construction of proper depots, side tracks, and connections, the sum of $542,098.78; in the construction of the bayfront line to Conner's Point, the terminus called for in the agreement, the sum of $93,423.91, and in the construction of a dock or pier in the bay of the Town of Superior the sum of $116,249.73. It was also alleged in the bill, and not denied in the answer, that at the time when the county proposed to dispose of said lands to the company, said lands were nontaxable, and yielded no income whatever to the county, and that ever since they were conveyed to the company, the latter had in each and every year paid the taxes levied thereon, and had expended large sums of money in the payment of such taxes, to-wit, more than $5,000; that its title to said lands

Page 158 U. S. 4

remained undisputed by anyone during all the time from said January 20, 1882, until the month of July, 1888, and that in the meantime the company had sold and conveyed various parcels of said lands to many different persons, and whose titles are based upon said deed of the county to the company.

On the 6th day of July, 1888, and on the 7th day of March, 1889, the county clerk of said county, in pursuance of a resolution of the board of supervisors, made deeds of those dates to the plaintiff in error Roberts for an alleged consideration of $385.

The other facts of the case are sufficiently stated in the opinion.

Page 158 U. S. 9

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