THE NORTHERN BELL, 76 U. S. 526 (1869)

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U.S. Supreme Court

The Northern Bell, 76 U.S. 9 Wall. 526 526 (1869)

The Northern Bell

76 U.S. (9 Wall.) 526


1. It is the duty of the carrier of grain in bulk in barges on our Western rivers, in the way now usual, as distinguished from the old way in sacks, to see that his barge is capable of resisting, without subjecting the cargo to injury, all the external forces to which it is subjected in the ordinary course of navigation, including especially those incident to the narrow, crooked, and shallow water and the often changing courses in the currents of the rivers where they are, and to the force with which the large steamers which have them in tow are often brought against their sides in landing, as they do, for the purposes of their ordinary business, every few miles on the river.

2. The barge must be so tight that the water will not reach the cargo, so strong that these ordinary applications of external force will not spring a leak or sink her, so sound that she will safely carry the cargo in bulk through these ordinary shocks to which she must every day be subjected. If she is capable of this, she is seaworthy; if she is not, she is unfit for the navigation of the river. No other test can be given, and this must be determined by the facts in each particular case.

3. It is the duty of the carrier to have his barges often examined and thoroughly inspected so as to be sure of their condition. He should not use a barge after she has become from age or decay or injury unfit for use, and should repair them often and well so long as they can by repairing be safely used, and no longer. For this he is to be held rigidly responsible.

The La Crosse & Minnesota Steam Packet Company, owners of the steamboat Northern Belle, and engaged in the carrying trade on the Upper Mississippi, undertook to carry for a certain Robson, in their barge Pat Brady, five thousand bushels of wheat from Hastings, in Minnesota, to La Crosse, in Wisconsin, and safely deliver the same, the unavoidable dangers of the river and fire only excepted. On the voyage, the barge was sunk and the wheat damaged, and the Home Insurance Company, which had given a policy on the wheat and paid it, filed a libel in admiralty against the steamer and her barge to recover the loss.

The principal question in issue was the seaworthiness of the barge. The injury occurred May 12. About the latter part of June following, after another accident and loss

Page 76 U. S. 527

of a cargo on the same barge, she was placed upon the ways for repairs. And the depositions of several witnesses who examined her carefully at this time were now before the court. One of these witnesses testified that he found over ninety timbers rotted and gone, so much so that they were not strong enough to make a fastening to. At one point, there were four side timbers rotted out, so as to leave about five feet without support. Her floor timber ends were much decayed. Another witness stated that on one side he found about fifty rotted timbers, some of them entirely rotted off; on the other side, about the same, fifteen or twenty of them rotted entirely off. A third witness, a ship carpenter, confirmed this, testifying that the effect of it would be that any strong pressure against her sides or bottom from getting aground or surging against a steamboat would cause her to leak -- an inference which it hardly needed a ship carpenter to draw for the court.

The evidence in the immediate case showed that on the occasion when the present catastrophe took place, the steamboat was descending the river in the night when a slight shock was felt on the barge, so slight that it was not communicated to the boat. It did not stop or retard either the barge or the boat, but in a few minutes the former was found to be sinking, and had to be grounded on the nearest sandbar. No rock or snag was proved to be in the river at the place where the stock first occurred.

The Pat Brady was an old barge which had been formerly called Fort Snelling. But about a year before this catastrophe, she had been repaired and sent forth with a new name.

The district court decreed in favor of the libellant, and the circuit court affirmed that decree. The case was now brought here by the packet company.

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