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U.S. Supreme Court

Pennsylvania v. Wheeling & Belmont Bridge Company, 54 U.S. 518 (1851)

Pennsylvania v. Wheeling & Belmont Bridge Company

54 U.S. 518


The State of Pennsylvania, having constructed lines of canal and railroad and other means of travel and transportation which would be injured in their revenues by the obstruction in the River Ohio created by a bridge at Wheeling, has a sufficiently direct interest to sustain an application to this Court, in the exercise of original

Page 54 U. S. 519

jurisdiction, for an injunction to remove the obstruction. The remedy at law would be incomplete.

It is admitted that the federal courts have no jurisdiction of common law offenses, and that there is no abstract pervading principle of the common law of the Union under which this Court can take jurisdiction, and that the case under consideration is subject to the same rules of action as if the suit had been commenced in the Circuit Court for the District of Virginia.

But chancery jurisdiction is conferred on the courts of the United States by the Constitution, under certain limitations, and under these limitations the usages of the High Court of Chancery in England, which have been adopted as rules by this Court, furnish the chancery law which is exercised in all the states, and even in those where no state chancery system exists.

Under this system, where relief can be given by the English chancery, similar relief may be given by the courts of the Union.

An indictment against a bridge as a nuisance by the United States could not be sustained, but a proceeding against it on the ground of a private and irreparable injury may be sustained at the instance of an individual or a corporation either in the federal or state courts.

In case of nuisance, if the obstruction be unlawful and the injury irreparable, by a suit at common law, the injured party may claim the extraordinary protection of a court of chancery.

The Ohio is a navigable stream, subject to the commercial power of Congress, which has been exercised over it, and if the act of Virginia authorized the structure of the bridge so as to obstruct navigation, it would afford no justification to the bridge company.

Congress has sanctioned the compact made between Virginia and Kentucky, viz.,

"That the use and navigation of the River Ohio, so far as the Territory of Virginia or Kentucky is concerned, shall be free and common to the citizens of the United States."

This compact is obligatory, and can be carried out by this Court.

Where there is a private injury from a public nuisance, a court of equity will interfere by injunction.

In this case, the bridge is a nuisance. This is shown by measuring the height of the bridge, and of the water, and of the chimneys of the boats. The report of the commissioner, appointed by this Court to ascertain these facts, is equivalent to the verdict of a jury.

The report of the commissioner adverted to and commented upon, the extent of injury sustained by the boats explained, and the importance shown of maintaining the navigation of the river.

If a structure be declared to be a nuisance, there is no room for a calculation and comparison between the injuries and benefits which it produces.

Therefore, unless there be an elevation of the lowest parts of the bridge for three hundred feet over the channel of the river -- not less than one hundred and eleven feet from the low water mark, the flooring of the bridge descending from the termini of the elevation at the rate of four feet in the hundred -- or some other plan shall be adopted which shall relieve the navigation from obstruction, on or before the first of February next -- the bridge must be abated.

In consequence of the intimation above alluded to, viz. "that some other plan might be adopted" than elevating the bridge, the Court, at the request of the counsel for the Bridge Company, referred the matter to an engineer. After receiving his report, the Court decided as follows:

The Bridge Company may, upon its own responsibility, try whether the western channel can be improved and made passable by means of a draw, so as to afford a safe and unobstructed navigation for the largest class of boats, having chimneys eighty feet high, when they cannot pass under the suspension bridge. This is to be done, if at all, before the first Monday of February next, on which day the plaintiff may move the Court on the subject of the decree.

This was a case upon the equity side of this Court, in the exercise of original jurisdiction.

It is noticed in 50 U. S. 9 How. 647, and again in 52 U. S. 11 How. 528.

In 9 Howard, a statement is given of the contents of the bill

Page 54 U. S. 520

and answer, and of the proceedings in the case, up to the time of its reference to a commissioner, for the purpose of taking further proofs upon the points therein stated. The reader is referred to that volume for these proceedings.

In that report it is mentioned that a notice of the arguments of counsel was deferred until the final decision of the case.

That final decision having taken place at this term, it is proper now to note as briefly as possible the grounds assumed by the respective counsel.

Page 54 U. S. 557

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