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U.S. Supreme Court

Weems Steamboat Co. v. People's Steamboat Co., 214 U.S. 345 (1909)

Weems Steamboat Company of Baltimore

v. People's Steamboat Company

No. 181

Argued April 26, 1909

Decided June 1, 1909

214 U.S. 345


A wharf on a navigable stream is private property and subject to the absolute control of the owner, as other property is.

The rights of a riparian owner on a navigable stream are governed by the law of the state in which the stream is situated, but subject to the paramount public right of navigation.

One of the rights of a riparian proprietor is to build private wharves out so as to reach the navigable waters of the stream, and this right has been affirmed by the courts of Virginia; but a wharf obstructing navigation or private rights of others or encroaching upon any public landing may be abated.

A private wharf on a navigable stream is the exclusive property of the owner of which he can only be deprived in accordance with established law, and, if taken for public use, on compensation being made.

A private wharf on a navigable stream is not held by the owner, as a railroad is, subject to the public use, and a third person has no right to demand its use even on tendering compensation therefor, and even though there may be no other wharf at the place. Munn v. Illinois, 94 U. S. 113, distinguished. Louisville & Nashville Railway Co. v. West Coast Naval Stores Co., 198 U. S. 483, followed.

The public obtains no adverse right against the owner of a private wharf by mere user; in the absence of an intent on the owner's part to dedicate, and an acceptance by the public authority, the use is mere license subject to withdrawal.

The remarks of Mr. Justice Bradley in Transportation Co. v. Parkersburg, 107 U. S. 691, as to the right of the owner of a private wharf to make arbitrary charges are obiter, and are not applicable to the present case.

141 F.4d 4 and judgment of circuit court of appeals affirming it reversed.

The complainant (the above-named petitioner) commenced this suit in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Virginia against the defendant, the People's

Page 214 U. S. 346

Steamboat Company and its officers and agents, for the purpose of obtaining an injunction restraining the corporation defendant from using certain wharves on the Rappahannock River, in the State of Virginia, of some of which the complainant was the owner in fee and of others the lessee of the exclusive use from the owners. The complainant contended that it had the exclusive right to the use of such wharves, either as owner or lessee, and that the defendant illegally, and against the will of the complainant, insisted upon using them to carry on its business, although offering to pay the complainant what was the reasonable value of the defendant's use of such wharves.

The corporation and the individual defendants filed joint and separate answers setting up a claim of right to the use of such wharves upon compensation's being made therefor, and the case came before the court on motion of complainant for a temporary injunction, as prayed for in the bill of complaint. The court, without then passing upon any other question, ordered that the matter be referred to a special master for the purpose of taking such evidence as might the submitted to him by either party, or which he might find necessary to take, bearing upon the title to the several wharves mentioned in complainant's bill and claimed by complainant, and to ascertain what rights passed to complainant with the acquisition of such wharves, and whether or not the wharves were public or private wharves. Pursuant to this order of reference, hearings were had before the master, who returned the evidence taken before him with his opinion in favor of granting the injunction as prayed for by the complainant, on the ground that the wharves in question were private wharves, owned or leased by the complainant, who had the exclusive right to their use. The facts found by the master were not overruled, but his conclusions of law were not concurred in by the court, and the preliminary injunction was refused The case was then submitted to the court for trial upon all the evidence taken, and the bill was dismissed with costs. 141 F.4d 4.

Page 214 U. S. 347

The complainant appealed from the decree of dismissal to the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, where it was affirmed upon the opinion of the circuit court.

The complainant then applied to this Court for a writ of certiorari to bring the case here, which petition was granted, and the case has been submitted to this Court upon the briefs of respective counsel.

Page 214 U. S. 351

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