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U.S. Supreme Court

Economy Light & Power Co. v. United States, 256 U.S. 113 (1921)

Economy Light & Power Company v. United States

No. 104

Argued December 17, 1920

Decided April 11, 1921

256 U.S. 113


1. Artificial obstructions subject to abatement by public authority do not render nonnavigable in law a stream which, in its natural state, would be navigable in fact. P. 256 U. S. 118.

2. The authority of Congress to prohibit added obstructions to a navigable stream is not lost by omission to take action in previous cases. P. 256 U. S. 118.

3. The Desplaines River in Illinois, which was used from a very early day to about the year 1825 as a link in a well known route between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi in the transportation of furs and supplies by canoes and other light-draft boats, but has not since

Page 256 U. S. 114

been used for transportation and is not thus useful under existing conditions, held a navigable water of the United States and within the act of Congress forbidding unauthorized obstructions. Act of March 3, 1899, c. 425, § 9, 30 Stat. 1151. Pp. 256 U. S. 117, 256 U. S. 123.

4. The public interest in navigable streams of this character in Illinois and neighboring states, and the federal authority over such as are capable of serving interstate commerce, arises not from custom or implication, but from the declaration of the 4th Article of the compact in the Ordinance of July 13, 1787, for the government of the Northwest Territory, that the navigable waters leading into the Mississippi and St.Lawrence, and the carrying places between the same, shall be common highways and forever free, etc. -- a principle which was reiterated in later acts of Congress and accepted by Illinois in her constitution at the time of her admission as a state. P. 256 U. S. 118.

5. Insofar as the Ordinance of 1787 thus established public rights of highway in navigable waters capable of bearing commerce from state to state, it was no more subject to repeal by a state than any other regulation of interstate commerce enacted by Congress. P. 256 U. S. 120.

6. The power of the states to regulate such navigable waters is plenary within their borders until Congress intervenes, but Congress has the power to assume entire control whenever it chooses, unhampered by previous acts of the states, and this supreme authority applies to states formed out of the Northwest Territory as well as to others, and may be exercised through general as well as special laws. P. 256 U. S. 121.

7. A river may be navigable in law though it contain natural obstructions and though it be not open to navigation at all seasons or at all stages of water. P. 256 U. S. 121.

8. A decision of a state supreme court holding a river not navigable in its natural condition does not bind the United States if it was not a party to the suit. P. 256 U. S. 123.

9. A river having actual navigable capacity in its natural state and capable of carrying commerce among the states is within the power of Congress to preserve for purposes of future transportation, even though it be not at present used for such commerce and be incapable of such use according to present methods, either by reason of changed conditions or because of artificial obstructions. P. 256 U. S. 123.

10. The provisions of 9 of the Act of March 3, 1899, supra, applicable in terms to "any navigable river or other navigable water of the United States," cannot be limited to such waters as were at the date of the act, or as now are, actually open to use. P. 256 U. S. 123.

11. Where there was no application under the statute, but the party

Page 256 U. S. 115

desiring to build a dam merely submitted its plans to the Secretary of War at an informal hearing and assured him that the stream was not navigable, held that his refusal to act, upon the ground that that condition left the stream without his jurisdiction, imported neither an approval of the project nor an inquiry concerning navigability. P. 256 U. S. 124.

256 F.7d 2 affirmed.

The case is stated in the opinion.

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