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MILLER V. MAYOR OF NEW YORK, 109 U. S. 385 (1883)

U.S. Supreme Court

Miller v. Mayor of New York, 109 U.S. 385 (1883)

Miller v. Mayor of New York

Argued November 6, 1883

Decided November 26, 1883

109 U.S. 385


1. A bridge erected over the East River, in the harbor of New York, in accordance with authority derived from Congress and from the Legislature of New York, is a lawful structure which cannot be abated as a public nuisance. So far as it obstructs navigation, it obstructs it under an authority which is empowered to permit the obstruction.

2. It is competent for Congress, having authorized the construction of a bridge of a given height over a navigable water, to empower the Secretary of War to determine whether the proposed structure will be a serious obstruction to navigation and to authorize changes in the plan of the proposed structure.

3. When the head of an executive department is required by law to give information on any subject to a citizen, he may ordinarily do this through subordinate officers in his department.

4. The navigable waters of the United States include such as are navigable in fact and which, by themselves or their connections, form a continuous channel for commerce with foreign countries or among the states. Over these Congress has control by virtue of the power vested in it to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several states.

5. The former cases, in which the court has considered the power of Congress to authorize the construction of bridges over navigable streams, referred to and considered.

Bill in equity to abate a nuisance.

On the 16th of April, 1867, the Legislature of New York passed an act creating a corporation by the name of the New York Bridge Company, for the purpose of constructing and

Page 109 U. S. 386

maintaining a permanent bridge over East River between the Cities of New York and Brooklyn. Laws 1867, c. 399. The act, among other things, authorized the corporation to acquire and hold so much real estate as might be necessary for the site of the bridge, and of all piers, abutments, walls, toll houses, and other structures proper to it, and for the opening of suitable avenues of approach, but no land under water beyond the pier lines established by law. It declared that the bridge at the middle of the river should not be at a less elevation than 130 feet above high tide, and should not be so constructed as to obstruct "the free and common navigation of the river;" that it should not obstruct any street it might cross, but span such street by an arch or suspended platform of suitable height to afford passage under it for all purposes of public travel and transportation, and that no street running on the line of the bridge should be closed without full compensation to the owners of the property upon it, and designated the points of the commencement and termination of the bridge.

On the 20th of February, 1869, the legislature passed an act amending the act of incorporation, and providing for the representation of the two Cities of New York and Brooklyn in the board of directors of the bridge company, and directing that the company should proceed without delay to construct the bridge, authorizing it, for that purpose, to use and occupy so much of the lands under the water of the river, not exceeding a front on either side of 250 feet, nor extending beyond the pier lines, as might be necessary for the construction of the towers of the bridge.

By the Act of March 3d, 1869, 15 Stat. 336, c. 139, Congress authorized this work, and declared that when completed it should be

"A lawful structure and post road for the conveyance of the mails of the United States, provided that the said bridge shall be so constructed and built as not to obstruct, impair, or injuriously modify the navigation of the river, and in order to secure a compliance with this conditions, the company, previous to commencing the construction of the bridge, shall submit to the Secretary

Page 109 U. S. 387

of War a plan of the bridge, with a detailed map of the river at the proposed site of the bridge and for the distance of a mile above and below the site, exhibiting the depths and currents at all points of the same, together with all other information touching said bridge and river as may be deemed requisite by the Secretary of War to determine whether the said bridge, when built, will conform to the prescribed conditions of the act not to obstruct, impair, or injuriously modify the navigation of the river."

"SEC. 2. And be it further enacted that the Secretary of War is hereby authorized and directed, upon receiving said plan and map and other information, and upon being satisfied that a bridge built on such plan, and at said locality, will conform to the prescribed conditions of this act not to obstruct, impair, or injuriously modify the navigation of said river, to notify the said company that he approves the same, and upon receiving such notification the said company may proceed to the erection of said bridge, conforming strictly to the approved plan and location. But until the Secretary of War approve the plan and location of said bridge and notify said company of the same in writing, the bridge shall not be built or commenced, and should any change be made in the plan of the bridge during the progress of the work thereon, such change shall be subject likewise to the approval of the Secretary of War."

The company complied with the provisions requiring them to submit plans to the Secretary of War. A commission, consisting of three officers of the engineer corps, was appointed by the Secretary of War to examine these plans. Their report was submitted to the chief of the corps, who thereupon addressed the following letter to the Secretary of War:


"WASHINGTON, D.C., May 31, 1869"

"SIR: The report, with accompanying papers, of the commission constituted by Special Order No. 73, from the Adjutant General's office to examine and report upon the bridge proposed to be built between the Cities of New York and Brooklyn is herewith respectfully submitted to the Secretary of War."

"After an examination of them and a careful consideration of the subject, the conclusion at which I have arrived is that the

Page 109 U. S. 388

proposed bridge, if built subject to the conditions recommended by the commission, with the prescribed height in the middle of one hundred and thirty feet above mean high water of spring tides, will conform to the requirements of the act of Congress 'not to obstruct, impair, or injuriously modify the navigation of the river,' and I recommend to the Secretary of War approval of the same. The phrase in the act of Congress 'not to obstruct, impair, or injuriously modify the navigation of the river' was prepared by myself, and with reference to the meaning attached to those words by the best authorities, and they were, I believe, used in the act with that understanding of them. I would further recommend that the bridge company be furnished with a copy of the report of the commission."

"Very respectfully, your obedient servant."


"Brigadier General and Chief of Engineers"


"Secretary of War"

The Secretary of War returned this letter and the accompanying papers to the chief of engineers with this endorsement thereon:

"WAR DEPARTMENT, June 19, 1869"

"Respectfully returned to the chief of engineers, whose views and recommendations, as well as those of the commission herein referred to, are concurred in and approved, provided that the height of the centre of the main span of the bridge shall not be less than 135 feet in the clear at mean high water of the spring tides, and provided further that the structure shall conform in all other respects to the conditions recommended by the commission."

"The chief of engineers will furnish the bridge company with a copy of the act establishing the bridge, a copy of the report of the commission and of this report, and will notify the company that the plan and location of the bridge are approved subject to the conditions herein imposed."

"(Signed) JNO. A. RAWLINS"

"WAR DEP., June 19, 1869 Secretary of War"

Thereupon the chief of engineers addressed the following letter to the president of the bridge company:

Page 109 U. S. 389


"WASHINGTON D.C., June 21, 1869"


"President New York Bridge Company, Brooklyn, N.Y."

"SIR : I am directed by the Secretary of War to inform the New York Bridge Company that he approves the plan and location of the East River Bridge as reported by the company to the commission instituted by orders from the War Department, provided the bridge conform to the following conditions, viz.: "

"First. That the centre of the main span shall under no conditions of temperature or load be less than one hundred and thirty-five feet in the clear above mean high water of spring tides, as established by the United States Coast Survey."

"Second. That the dimensions and coefficients of stability of the various parts of the structure shall not be reduced below those represented in the papers submitted to the commission by the company or its agents."

"Third. That no portion of the grillage or enrockments of the pier or tower foundations above the natural riverbed shall project beyond the pier lines as established by the laws of the State of New York."

"Fourth. That no guys or stays shall ever be attached to the main span of the bridge, which shall hang below the bottom chords thereof."

"These considerations must be strictly adhered to in building the bridge."

"I am also instructed by the Secretary of War to furnish the bridge company copies of the act of Congress establishing the bridge, of the report of the commission, and of the report of the chief of engineers, all of which are enclosed herewith."

"Very respectfully, your obedient servant,"


"Brig. Gen. and Chief of Engineers"

The bridge was built in substantial compliance with these requirements, and the requirements of the Legislature of New York in the several acts relating to the bridge have all been substantially complied with, and the bridge has been completed and is now in public use.

The appellant is a lessee of warehouses on the East River

Page 109 U. S. 390

above the bridge. After the building of the bridge was far advanced and over $6,000,000 had been expended upon it, but before completion, he began this suit in the court below, on behalf of himself and others similarly situated, setting forth that the projected bridge would seriously impair and obstruct the navigation of the East River and praying to have it adjudged to be a public nuisance, built without lawful authority, and the defendants in the suit enjoined from completing and maintaining it. Judgment being given against him in the court below, this appeal was taken.

Page 109 U. S. 392

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