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March 1, 1920



White, McKenna, Holmes, Day, Van Devanter, Pitney, McReynolds, Brandeis, Clarke

Author: Brandeis

[ 252 U.S. Page 116]

 MR. JUSTICE BRANDEIS delivered the opinion of the court.

The railroad from Port Huron to Flint, in Michigan, sixty miles in length, was completed on December 12, 1871. It was built by the Port Huron and Lake Michigan Railroad Company. By foreclosure of a mortgage executed

[ 252 U.S. Page 117]

     by that corporation and several consolidations it became on October 31, 1900, the property of the Grand Trunk Western Railway Company and has since been a part of its system. For forty-one years after the completion of this sixty-mile road the mails were carried over it by the successive owners under the usual postal contracts and payment was made for the service quarterly at full rates. In 1912 the Postmaster General, concluding that this was a land-aided railroad within the provisions of § 13 of the Act of July 12, 1876, c. 179, 19 Stat. 78, 82,*fn1 restated the account for the twelve full years during which the road had been operated by the Grand Trunk Western. Twenty per cent. of the mail pay for that period was found to be $50,359.70; and this amount he deducted from sums accruing to the company under the current mail contract. He also reduced by twenty per cent. the amount otherwise payable under the current contract for carrying the mail over this part of its system. Thus he deducted altogether $52,566.87 from the amount payable on June 30, 1913. The road had in fact been built without any aid through grant of public lands. None had passed to the Grand Trunk Western when it acquired the road; and, so far as appears, that company had no actual knowledge that any of its predecessors in title had acquired any public land because of its construction. The company insisted that the $52, 566.87 thus deducted from its mail pay was withheld without warrant in law, and brought this suit in the Court of Claims to recover the amount. 53 Ct. Clms. 473. Its petition was dismissed and the case comes here on appeal. Whether the company is entitled to relief depends upon the legal effect of the following facts.

[ 252 U.S. Page 118]

     By Act of June 3, 1856, c. 44, 11 Stat. 21, Congress granted to Michigan public land to aid in the construction of certain lines of railroad, a part extending easterly of Flint to Port Huron -- another part, westerly of Flint to Grand Haven. The act contained in § 5 the usual mail provision.*fn1a In 1857 the legislature of Michigan granted these lands to two companies on condition that they accept the obligations of the grant within sixty days. [Act of February 14, 1857, Laws Mich., 1857, p. 346.] Each company filed within the specified time a partial acceptance, refusing to accede to the taxation features of the grant. Thereupon the rights of each to any part of the public lands was declared forfeited by the state authorities for failure to comply with the state legislation. Subsequently the companies filed maps of definite location in the General Land Office of the Interior Department, which were approved by that office; and on June 3, 1863, the Secretary of the Interior certified to the Governor of Michigan 30,998.76 acres of land lying west of Flint for the company which was to build the line from Grand Haven to Flint, the Detroit and Milwaukee Railway Company. On November 1, 1864, he certified 6,428.68 acres, all but 97 40/100 acres of which lay east of Flint, for the company which was to build the line from Flint to Port Huron, the Port Huron and Milwaukee Railway Company. Neither company constructed its line nor received any patent for land. The rights of way and other property of the Port Huron and Milwaukee Railway Company passed through a foreclosure sale to the Port Huron and Lake Michigan Railroad Company; and this corporation built the road in question during the years 1869, 1870 and 1871.

[ 252 U.S. Page 119]

     But it made no application for any part of these lands until three weeks before the completion of the road. Then, on November 18, 1871, it petitioned the State Board of Control, which was charged with the disposition of the public lands, to confer upon it both the 30,998.76 acres west of Flint and the 6,428.68 acres east of Flint which the Secretary of the Interior had certified; and in so applying it asked for the land "for the purpose of aiding in the construction" of its contemplated railroad which was described as extending from Grand Haven to Flint and thence to Port Huron. The board approved of making the grant "for the purpose of aiding in the construction of the road;" but no further action was taken until May 1, 1873, when upon a new petition of the company which recited the former proceedings and the completion of "sixty miles of the unfinished portion of said line" the board directed the transfer of all the land to it. The resolution of the board was followed on May 30, 1873, by a patent for all the land from the Governor of the State, its formal acceptance by the company subject to the provisions of the Act of Congress of June 3, 1856, and action by it to take possession of the land and to dispose of it for the benefit of the company. In 1877 the Supreme Court of Michigan held in Bowes v. Haywood, 35 Michigan, 241, that the patent so far as it purported to transfer the 30,998.76 acres west of Flint was void under the Michigan legislation, because there had not, in fact, been any claim or pretence that the company ever contemplated building the line west of Flint; and in Fenn v. Kinsey, 45 Michigan, 446, (1881), that court held that an act of the Michigan legislature passed May 14, 1877, which purported to ratify the patent, was inoperative so far as it concerned the lands west of Flint because it impaired rights reserved to the United States by the Act of June 3, 1856. Meanwhile, Congress had relinquished to Michigan, by Joint Resolution of March 3, 1879, No. 15, 20 Stat. 490, its reversionary

[ 252 U.S. Page 120]

     interest in the lands;*fn1b and thereafter the legislature of Michigan (Act of June 9, 1881, Laws Mich., 1881, p. 362), ratified as to the six thousand acres east of Flint, the action theretofore taken by the state authorities, declaring also that "all deeds and conveyances heretofore executed by the Port Huron and Lake Michigan railroad company" "shall be deemed of full force and effect" and that the "rest and residue of said lands is vested in said company, its successor or assigns." Whether there remained then any land which had not been disposed of by that company or one of its successors does not appear; but it does appear that when in 1875 proceedings were taken to foreclose the mortgage under which the appellant claims title to the road, the trustee to whom the lands had been transferred for the company's benefit was joined for the purpose of including all such interest in the property to be sold.

The Act of June 3, 1856, had contemplated a grant of six sections (3,840 acres) per mile of road to be constructed. That would have been 230,400 acres for the sixty miles. The company which built them and those claiming under it received at most 6,428 acres. The case is one of apparent hardship. Was the ...

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