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U.S. Supreme Court

Mobile Transportation Co. v. Mobile, 187 U.S. 479 (1903)

Mobile Transportation Company v. Mobile

No. 62

Argued November 3, 1902

Decided January 6, 1903

187 U.S. 479


1. A motion to dismiss for want of a federal question cannot be sustained when the title involved depends upon a Spanish grant claimed to have been perfected under the treaty of 1819 with Spain, and a patent of the United States in alleged confirmation of such claim.

2. It has been conclusively settled by this Court that the State of Alabama, when admitted to the Union, became entitled to the soil under the navigable waters below high water mark within the limits of the state, not previously granted. Pollard's Lessee v. Hagan, 3 How. 212.

The Act of the Legislature of Alabama of January 31, 1867, conveying to the City of Mobile the shore and soil under Mobile River is not unconstitutional as impairing vested rights of owners of grants bordering on Mobile River, as the rule in Alabama that a grant by the United States of lands bordering on a navigable river includes the shore or bank of such river and extends

Page 187 U. S. 480

to the water line at low water, does not relate to land bordering on tidal streams.

As the state held the lands under water below high water mark as trustee for the public it had the right to devolve the trust upon the City of Mobile.

3. All the land below high water mark having passed to Alabama on her admission to the Union in 1819, there was nothing left upon which a patent of the United States dated in 1838, could operate, and the person claiming to hold land below high water mark under said patent has no vested interest in such land, which would require compensation or proceedings in eminent domain on the part of the state to take such lands.

There is a difference between the legislature of a state granting land beneath navigable waters of the state, and below high water mark, to a private railroad corporation and granting it to a municipal corporation whose mayor, aldermen, and common council are created and declared trustees to hold, possess, direct, control and manage the shore and soil granted in such manner as they may deem best for the public good. Illinois Central R. Co. v. Illinois, 146 U. S. 387, distinguished.

While this Court can decide as an original question the power of a state to convey property to a corporation, when the case comes from the circuit court of the United States, if the case comes up on writ of error to a state court, and the highest court of the state has itself put a construction upon an act of its own legislature, and upon its conformity to the constitution of the state, the decision of such court upon those questions is obligatory on this Court.

Defenses appearing on the record in this case, which are of a local nature, present no federal question.

This was an action in ejectment brought in the state circuit court by the City of Mobile against the Mobile Transportation Company, to recover a portion of the shore and bed of the Mobile River in the City of Mobile, between high water mark and the channel line or point of practical navigability.

In support of its title, the city relied upon the following acts:

1. An act of Congress approved March 2, 1819, entitled

"An Act to Enable the the Alabama Territory to Form a Constitution and State Government, and for the Admission of Such state into the Union on an Equal Footing with the Original states."

3 Stat. 489.

2. An ordinance of the convention of Alabama adopted August 2, 1819, accepting the proposition offered by Congress. Code of Alabama, 1876, p. 68.

3. A resolution of Congress of December 14, 1819, declaring

Page 187 U. S. 481

the admission of the state into the union, with a constitution which had been adopted by the state. 3 Stat. 608.

4. An act of the General Assembly of Alabama, approved January 31, 1867, entitled "An Act Granting the City of Mobile the Riparian Rights in the River Front." Acts of 1866-67, p. 307.

5. An act of the assembly, approved February 18, 1895, entitled "An Act to fix the Right of the City of Mobile to Certain Real Estate." Acts of 1894-95, p. 815.

6. An act approved December 5, 1896 (Acts 1896, p. 49), amending the last act.

Several acts respecting the incorporation of the City of Mobile, unnecessary to be considered, were also offered in evidence. It was admitted that defendant was in possession of the lands.

Defendant pleaded the statute of limitations, and offered in evidence certain

"documents, legislative and executive, of the Congress of the United States in relation to the public lands, from the first session of the First Congress to the first session of the Twenty-third Congress,"

and particularly that relating to the claim of one Regis Bernoudy, who claimed under a Spanish grant made March 3, 1792, to Joseph Munora, together with evidence of the report of the Land Commissioner in favor of his claim, and a patent of the United States dated December 28, 1836, to the assignees of Bernoudy, wherein it was recited that the claim of Bernoudy (entered as No. 11) was affirmed, had been surveyed, and was by such title granted unto his assignees. The defendant also offered an unbroken chain of deeds from these assignees to the transportation company, as well as proof of an adverse possession of the lands described in the complaint, under a color of right, for twenty years before bringing suit.

All this evidence was excluded by the circuit court, whose action in that particular was affirmed by the supreme court of the state. 128 Ala. 335.

Page 187 U. S. 482

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