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Potomac Steamboat Co. v. Upper Potomac Steamboat Co., 109 U.S. 672 (1884)

Potomac Steamboat Company v. Upper Potomac Steamboat Company

Argued November 26-28, 1883

Decided January 7, 1884

109 U.S. 672


1. In 1791, one Young, then owning a tract of land containing about 400 acres on the Potomac, conveyed the same in fee simple with all its appurtenances to two trustees (who were also trustees with similar trusts, for other owners of land), as a site for the City of Washington. The trust provided that the lands laid out in streets, squares, etc., should be for the use of the United States forever, and that a fair and equal division of the remainder should be made. In 1794, the plan of the city was adopted and promulgated. On this plan, a public street called Water Street was represented as laid out on the margin of the river over the tract so conveyed by Young, but this street was not in fact constructed until after the close of the late civil war. In 1796, the trustees conveyed the tract so deeded to them (including Young's), "in fee simple subject to trusts yet remaining," to commissioners appointed to receive title, under the Act of July 16th, 1790, entitled, "An Act for establishing the temporary and permanent seat of the government of the United States." 1 Stat. 130. In 1797, the commissioners, in execution of the trust and in pursuance of a statute of the State of Maryland, recorded certificates in their record book which stated that one tract, defined by metes and bounds, had been allotted to Young, and that another tract in like manner defined had been allotted to the United States. Each of these tracts was on the northerly side of Water Street, and was described as bounded on that street. The title to both became subsequently vested in the plaintiffs.

Held that these transactions were equivalent to a conveyance by Young to the United States in fee simple of all his lands and of a conveyance back by the United States of the first tract described by metes and bounds, leaving in the United States the title in fee simple to the other tract and to the strip known as Water Street. Van Ness v. The Mayor &c., of Washington, 4 Pet. 232, approved and followed.

2. After the execution of the commissioners' certificate in 1797 allotting to Young a tract of land on the north side of Water Street and to the United States another tract, also on the north side of that street, no wharfage rights remained connected with the use and enjoyment of those

Page 109 U. S. 673

lots, and not being thus connected with them, such right was not annexed as an incident to them, so as to become appurtenant to them.

3. The agreement of March 28, 1785, between Virginia and Maryland, provided that citizens of each should have full property in the shores of the Potomac and the privilege of constructing wharves and improvements. The Maryland Act of December 19, 1791, authorized the commissioners appointed under the Act of July 10th, 1790, 1 Stat. 130, to license the building of wharves on the Potomac.

Held that the United States, as owners in fee of Water Street in the City of Washington, were in the enjoyment of all the rights which were attached to that property by this compact and by this legislation or which belonged or appertained to it by virtue of general principles of law relating to riparian rights. The authorities in this Court and other federal courts and in state courts and the courts of Great Britain on that subject examined.

4. The Act of the Legislature of Maryland of December 28, 1793, under which the commissioners entered in their record book the certificate to Young and to the United States, provided that they should "be sufficient and effectual to vest the legal estate in the purchasers, without any deed or formal conveyance."

Held, That parol evidence is only admissible to contradict, vary, or explain them when it would have been admissible if they had been formal conveyances.

5. Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Co. v. Union Bank of Georgetown, 5 Cranch C.C. 509, cannot be regarded as the law of the District of Columbia on the point involved in this case. Insofar as in conflict with it, the court in that case did not follow Van Ness v. Mayor &c. of Washington, 4 Pet. 232, or Kennedy v. Washington, 3 Cranch C.C. 595.

Bill in equity to restrain the defendants below, who are the appellees in this Court, from constructing piers and docks on the Potomac at the City of Washington. The plaintiffs, being in possession of a tract of land bounded by Water Street, which was on the margin of the river, claimed that the riparian rights on the side of the street opposite to their tract attached to it. The defendants denied the plaintiffs' title to such riparian rights, and justified their own acts under a license from the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, who claimed title to the riverfront and riparian rights through deeds vesting the fee simple of Water Street, in the City of Washington, in the United States.

The injunction prayed for was refused below. The plaintiff appealed.

Page 109 U. S. 674

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