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PIGEON RIVER CO. V. CHARLES W. COX, LTD., 291 U. S. 138 (1934)

U.S. Supreme Court

Pigeon River Co. v. Charles W. Cox, Ltd., 291 U.S. 138 (1934)

Pigeon River Improvement, Slide & Boom Co.

v. Charles W. Cox, Ltd.

No. 126. Argued December 6, 7, 1933

Decided January 5, 1934

291 U.S. 138


1. The Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 declares that "all water communications and all the usual portages along" the international boundary line, as established by the Treaty

"from Lake Superior to the Lake of the Woods, and also Grand Portage, from the shore of Lake Superior to the Pigeon River, as now actually used, shall be free and open to the citizens and subjects of both countries."

Pigeon River is one of the waters traversed by the line, and Grand Portage was one of several portages circuiting impassable falls and rapids in that river which were used in aid of transportation by canoe. Held that the clause does not preclude an improvement of the stream, by sluiceways, booms, and dams, rendering it capable of transporting timber products -- a use theretofore impossible because

Page 291 U. S. 139

of the natural obstructions, nor does it prevent the enaction of a nondiscriminatory charge for the use of such improvement. P. 291 U. S. 157.

2. Ambiguity in a treaty may be resolved by practical construction. P. 291 U. S. 158.

3. For the purpose of utilizing an international boundary stream (the Pigeon River) for transportation of lumber products, the State of Minnesota authorized a corporation to erect, and to collect tolls for the use of, sluiceways, booms, and dams within her limits, complementing like structures on the other side of the international line made by another corporation under Canadian authority.


(1) A state may make reasonable provision for local improvement of a navigable stream until its authority is superseded by dominant federal action. P. 291 U. S. 158.

(2) The fact that the stream forms part of an international boundary does not make this principle inapplicable. P. 291 U. S. 158.

(3) The Act of March 3, 1901, by which Congress expressly authorized the Minnesota corporation to improve part of the river next to an Indian reservation, on condition that it be open to free passage of timber cut from the reservation and passage of all other timber for a reasonable charge, was, by necessary implication, an approval of the improvements at other places, without which the purpose of the Act could not have been accomplished. P. 291 U. S. 159.

(4) This Act is not to be construed as abrogating or modifying the treaty provision (supra), but is a practical construction of it. P. 291 U. S. 160.

(5) The action of the Province of Ontario in providing for complementary works on the Canadian side of the boundary and authorizing tolls for their use is also a practical construction of the treaty provisions. P. 291 U. S. 161.

(6) The structures and uses in question are among those recognized by the Treaty of January 11, 1909, with Great Britain, as "heretofore permitted." 36 Stat. 2448. P. 291 U. S. 161.

63 F.2d 567 reversed.

Appeal from affirmance of a judgment dismissing a complaint in an action brought by a Minnesota corporation against a Canadian corporation to recover tolls for the use of river improvements in the transportation of timber products.

Page 291 U. S. 147

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