CITY OF BOSTON V. LECRAW, 58 U. S. 426 (1845)

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U.S. Supreme Court

City of Boston v. Lecraw, 58 U.S. 17 How. 426 426 (1845)

City of Boston v. Lecraw

58 U.S. (17 How.) 426




By the old laws of Massachusetts, a littoral proprietor of land owned down to low water mark, subject, however, to the condition that until he occupied the space between high and low water mark, the public had a right to use it for the purposes of navigation.

The City of Boston had the same right as other littoral proprietors, and consequently had the control over a dock which was situated between two wharves, one end of the dock being at high water mark and the other at low water mark. It had, therefore, the right to construct a sewer for the purpose of carrying off the drainage from the high water to the low water end of the dock.

The city had not dedicated the dock to public uses by merely abstaining from any control over it. The principles which regulate a dedication to public uses examined.

Although the presumption of such a dedication is a question of fact for the jury, yet it is for the court to instruct them what facts, if proved, will justify such a presumption.

This was a suit originally commenced in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Massachusetts and removed into the Circuit Court of Rhode Island upon the ground that MR. JUSTICE CURTIS was so connected with the plaintiff as to render it, in his opinion, improper for him to sit in the trial of the suit, and that Judge Sprague was an inhabitant of Boston, and concerned in interest in this cause, so as to render it, in his opinion, improper for him to sit in the trial thereof. It was therefore ordered, both judges concurring, that an authenticated copy of the record and all proceedings in the suit, should be certified to the Circuit Court of Rhode Island.

Lecraw, a citizen of New Hampshire, as surviving partner of the firm of Lecraw & Perkins, brought an action on the case against the City of Boston for erecting a public nuisance, which was specially injurious to the plaintiff.

Lecraw was in possession of a wharf estate situated in the southerly side of Boston. His wharf extended to the sea, and was entirely unobstructed at the end seaward. Along the southerly side of the wharf there was a dock about thirty feet wide, extending from the end of Summer Street to the sea. In July, 1849, the board of health ordered a drain or sewer to be constructed from one end of the dock to the other so as to carry the drainage out to deep water. It was constructed as follows:

The obstruction complained of, as appeared by the evidence, was a drain composed of plank and timber 460 feet long, eight feet wide, and eleven feet high to top of piles, and resting upon the surface of the mud in the dock, which extended

Page 58 U. S. 427

from the head of the dock to within __ feet of the foot of the same, and at the end of said drain was seventeen feet from the plaintiff's wharf on the north and thirty-two feet from the other wharf on the south.

For this obstruction to the approach of vessels to his wharf, Lecraw brought his action, and upon the trial of the cause the jury found a verdict in his favor, assessing the damages at $9,280.

The bill of exceptions taken by the defendant included all the evidence and the numerous prayers offered to the court, which are sufficiently noticed in the opinion of this Court.

Page 58 U. S. 431

MR. JUSTICE GRIER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The defendant in error, a citizen of New Hampshire, instituted this suit against the City of Boston, charging it with the erection of a public nuisance which was specially injurious to the plaintiff. The declaration contains seven counts. As the jury, under the instructions given by the court, gave a verdict for the plaintiff below on the last two only, it will be unnecessary to notice the others or the points of law applicable to them.

These counts set forth in substance that in the year 1849, the plaintiff and a partner, since deceased, carried on the business of buying and selling wood and coal in Boston, and were in possession of a wharf known as the Bull Wharf; that the dock forming the southerly boundary of said wharf, and extending from Summer Street Wharf, was a part of the harbor of Boston,

Page 58 U. S. 432

and a public dock, slip, or way, navigable by vessels, and over which the waters of the sea ebbed and flowed, and by reason thereof the plaintiff ought to have been allowed to pass and repass as over a navigable highway with boats vessels, over and through said dock from the wharf by him possessed to the channel of the sea; that defendant had erected piles and a drain in the dock, to the destruction of the navigation therein and the special injury of the plaintiff.

A congery of points or prayers of instruction, exceeding thirty in number, and covering nearly as many folios, were submitted to the court, some of which were given as prayed for, some with "qualifications," and many refused.

If a judge, in answering such a mass of hypothetical and verbose propositions, should occasionally contradict himself or fall into an error, or if the jury, instead of being instructed in law, should be confused and misled, it may be considered the legitimate result of such a practice. We do not think it necessary, therefore, to examine particularly each one of this labyrinth of propositions; but after a brief history of the title of the parties, and the admitted facts of the case bearing on its merits, we will state the law as applicable to them, and thus be enabled to test the correctness of the charge of the court in the instructions given or refused.

The original charters to the Plymouth company of that part of the territory which afterwards constituted the colony of Massachusetts conferred on them not only the property in the land, but all the "franchises, loyalties, liberties &c., and the requisite civil and political powers for the government of the colony."

By the common law of England, the right of littoral proprietors bounding on public navigable waters extended to high water mark only. But by an ancient ordinance, usually denominated the ordinance of 1641, § 3, it is declared

"That in all creeks, coves, and other places about and upon salt water, where the sea ebbs and flows, the proprietor of the land adjoining shall have propriety to the low water mark, where the sea doth not ebb above a hundred rods, and not more wheresoever it ebbs further, provided that such proprietors shall not by this liberty have power to stop or hinder the passage of boats or other vessels in or through any sea, creeks, or coves to other men's houses or lands."

This is the foundation of what may be called the common law of Massachusetts on this subject. By it the grantee of land bounding on navigable waters where the tide ebbs and flows acquires a legal right and a vested interest in the soil of the shore between high and low water mark, and not a mere indulgence

Page 58 U. S. 433

or gratuitous license, given without consideration and revocable at the pleasure of the grantor. See Austin v. Carter, 1 Mass. 231, and Commonwealth v. Alger, 7 Cush. 71.

As a consequence of such ownership, it is ruled that the proprietor of the land bounding on tidewaters has such a propriety in the flats to low water mark that he may maintain trespass quare clausum fregit against one who shall enter and cut down piles placed there by the owner with a view to build a wharf or otherwise enclose the flats. But the right of the littoral proprietor under the ordinance has always been subject to this rule: that until he shall build upon his flats or enclose them, and whilst they are covered with the sea, all other persons have the right to use them for the ordinary purposes of navigation; so long as the owner of the flats permits the sea to flow over them, the individual right of property in the soil beneath does not restrain or abridge the public right. 7 Cush. 75. This property is also subject to certain restrictions in its use, so that the state, in the exercise of its sovereign power of public for the protection of public harbors and to prevent encroachments therein, may establish lines and restrain and limit this power of the owner over his own property.

The whole territory now occupied by the City of Boston was originally granted to and held by the town, which made grants thereof from time to time, to such persons, and on such conditions as it deemed expedient; and the City of Boston, as successor to the town, continues to own such portions of the original territory as have not been sold or otherwise disposed of. But while it acknowledged the rights of its vendees of lands adjoining the shore to wharf out opposite their respective lots, by virtue of the police power exercised by it over the harbor, it superintended and defined the limits within which the owner should exercise his rights.

In 1683,

"the selectmen of Boston staked out a highway for the town's use, on the southerly side of the land belonging to John Gill deceased, under whom the plaintiff claims, being thirty feet in width, from the town corner of said Gill's wharf, next the sea."

This is the street since called Summer Street. They laid also another street, "near the shore, on the proprietor's land, fifty feet towards the seashore." But they ordered, at the same time

"that the flats and lands between the said highway and the sea be granted to the proprietors of the land, which are abutters on the way, in equal portion to their fronts."

Summer Street, as laid out, ended at high water mark, and has not yet been extended, nor have the city made any erections on their land between high and low water, previous to 1850; but the public right of navigation over it has been exercised up to

Page 58 U. S. 434

the foot of Summer Street. The drains and sewers from that street, and others connected with it, have hitherto been made to discharge their contents at that point. In course of time, however, as the city increased, this drainage increased also, to such an extent as to become pestilential and a very great nuisance to the neighborhood. In consequence thereof, the City of Boston has been twice in 1848 and 1849 indicted for the nuisance and sentenced to pay a fine. Since that time, the mayor and aldermen, acting as the board of health, have directed the drains or sewers to be continued out, on the land of the city opposite Summer Street, to low water mark. This is the first attempt by the city to reclaim this land from the sea and use it for their own benefit, and constitutes the erection which is now the subject of complaint. The sewers are not made to discharge their contents on the plaintiff's land, but into the sea. No property of the plaintiff has been taken for the public use, nor does he in these counts, on which the verdict was obtained, claim any private right of way over the land of defendants, but states his damage to have accrued by a public nuisance, specially injurious to his public right of navigable way over the lands of the defendant.

That the plaintiff had, in common with the rest of the world, a right to navigate over the land belonging to the city on which the erections complained of were made is not disputed. Nor is the title of the city to the land so used, unless they have granted it away, or otherwise disposed of it, a subject of dispute in the case. Those under whom the plaintiff claims, as owners of the property adjoining Summer Street, have exercised their right of dominion over the land to low water mark by covering it with a wharf many years ago, which is called Bull's Wharf. And those who adjoin the street on the other side have in the same manner exercised their right by erecting a wharf called Price's Wharf. The property of the city being but thirty feet wide, and lying between these two wharves, was thus, by the accidents of its form and position, converted into a dock or receptacle for vessels without any act of the owners of the land. A dock is defined by philologists, according to the American use of the term, to be "the space between wharves." No dock or slip has been made by the city or people of Boston their land, either for their own use or that of any other extraneous or indefinite public. So long as they did not elect to exercise their dominion over this part of the shore, the public right of navigation continued. It was a right defeasible at the will of the owner of the subjacent land. It was a natural right, not derived from any grant, real or presumed, originating with the owner of the soil. But the adjoiners, by the use of this right of navigation

Page 58 U. S. 435

in connection with their wharves, claim a right to enjoy the benefit of defendant's property as a dock for their wharves, and thus convert it to their private use under color of a public right.

In order to effect this, it is contended that the people of Boston, by not exercising their right of reclamation and by using their property according to their own pleasure, have dedicated it to the public, or world in general, as distinguished from the public, or people of Boston, and have abandoned the full dominion which they once might have exercised over it.

The people of Boston, who owned this land as their common and private property, acted through a corporation, whose corporate grants and licenses are matters of record. Their own use of their own property for their own benefit cannot be called a dedication of it to any other public of wider extent. Whether it was called "town dock" or "public dock," which were used as synonymous terms, it would furnish no ground to presume that they had parted with their right to govern and use it in the manner most beneficial to the people or public of the town or city.

The principles of law on which a presumption of the dedication of private property to public use are founded are correctly stated 3 Stark. Ev. 1203 to be:

"That the law will not presume any man's acts to be illegal, and will therefore attribute to long continued use and enjoyment, by the public, of a right of way or other privilege in or over the lands of another to a legal rather than an illegal origin, and will ascribe long possession which cannot otherwise be accounted for to a legal title upon a reasonable principle and very forcible presumption that the acquiescence in such enjoyment for a long period by those whose interest it was to interrupt it arose from the knowledge and consciousness on their part that the enjoyment was rightful and could not be disturbed, and also on consideration of the hardship which would accrue to parties if after long possession and when time had robbed them of the means of proof, their titles were to be subjected to a rigorous examination."

It is evidence that these principles can have no application to the present case. The exercise of the public right of navigation over the soil of defendant is fully accounted for without any presumption or grant or dedication by the owners. The public enjoyed this highway of nature by a title reaching far before the advent of the Pilgrims, and paramount to any grant to them or by them, but by the law the enjoyment of this public right was made defeasible by the owner of the land. Till he reclaimed his land, the public needed no grant or dedication by him in order to their enjoyment of the right of navigation over it. The

Page 58 U. S. 436

owner was not bound to exercise his right within a given time or forfeit it. A man cannot lose the title to his lands by leaving them in their natural state without improvement, or forfeit them by nonuser. See Butz v. Ihrie, 1 Rawle 218.

So long as the city chose to leave its land unreclaimed from the sea, it could not hinder the public navigation over it when covered with water, and could not, therefore, be properly said to acquiesce in that which it could not hinder. Nor could a grant or dedication of a right of way over its land be presumed in favor of the public, who enjoyed it under a different and paramount tenure. The public right has existed and been exercised for thousands of years, but is not hostile to the defendants, though defeasible at their will. It resembles the case of Rex v. Hudson, 2 Strange 909, where a dedication of land as a public highway was claimed by proof of sixty years' use, but the defendant produced a lease of the way for fifty-six years, and the court decided that no presumption of a dedication could arise during the lease, for the owner could not deny their right to use it, and there could be no presumption from his acquiescence.

It is true that the presumption of a dedication is one of fact, and not an artificial inference of mere law to be made by the court, yet it is an inference which the court advise the jury to make upon proof of certain facts. It is the duty of the court to state what facts, if proved, will justify such a presumption. To instruct the jury that certain facts are not "sufficient" evidence on which to presume a dedication, without informing them what facts would constitute sufficient evidence for that purpose, is devolving on them the decision of both law and fact and permitting them to dispose of men's property at their discretion by presuming grants without a particle of evidence to authorize such presumption.

The counts on which the jury have assessed the damages in this case claim no other right of highway over the lands of the defendant save the public right of navigation, nor has the evidence shown that he is entitled to any other. The title of the defendants to the land was not disputed. The court ought, therefore, to have instructed the jury that the public right of navigation over the land of defendant was defeasible; that the owners had a right to reclaim their land by wharfing out or making erections thereon beneficial to themselves; that there was no evidence in the case whatever by which the jury could presume that the city or people of Boston had dedicated their land to the use of some other public besides themselves; that it was consequently not only the right but the duty of the authorities of the city to extend their sewers to low water mark, for the

Page 58 U. S. 437

purpose of removing a nuisance injurious to the health of the citizens; and having done so on their own land, the damage to the plaintiff, if any, was damnum absque injuria, and he was not entitled to recover. The record shows that these or equivalent instructions were prayed by the counsel of defendant and refused by the court.

The judgment of the circuit court is therefore reversed and a venire de novo awarded.



This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record from the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Rhode Island, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, it is now here ordered and adjudged by this Court that the judgment of the said circuit court in this cause be and the same is hereby reversed with costs, and that this cause be and the same is hereby remanded to the said circuit court with directions to award a venire facias de novo.

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