Bedford v. United States
The appellants were owners of land on the Mississippi river in the state of Louisiana, amounting to 5,000 or 6,000 acres, upon which were cabins, other buildings, and fences. They brought suit in the court of claims for damages to their lands, alleged to have resulted from certain works of the United States. The damages consisted, as found by the court, of the erosion and overflow of about 2,300 acres of the land. The works of the government, and their operation, are described by the court in the following findings:
'Prior to the spring of 1876 the Mississippi river flowed around a narrow neck of land known as De Soto point; and, in going around this point, flowed by the city of Vicksburg in a southwesterly direction. In the spring of 1876 De Soto point became so narrow by erosion that the river broke through, leaving De Soto point as an island, thereby shortening the distance of the stream about 6 miles, and taking its course immediately to the south with great velocity against the Mississippi bank at what is known as the cut-off of 1876. The result was that the city of Vicksburg was left some miles away from the main channel of the river, and the old channel in front of the city was continually filled up, making the approach from the river to the docks along the river difficult, if not impossible.
'Between 1878 and 1884 the United States constructed about 10,700 feet of revetment along the banks of the Mississippi river at Delta point, Louisiana, for the purpose of preventing the further erosion of that point. The revetment consisted of willow mattresses weighted down by stones, and were placed on sand banks below high-water mark. The revetment was neither upon nor in contact with the claimant's land. The object of the construction was to prevent the navigable channel of the river from receding farther from the city of Vicksburg, which had been left some distance from the main channel of the river by the cut-off of 1876, as aforesaid. The revetment was repaired slightly in 1866 and 1889, and more extensively in 1894, all of which work was paid for from time to time out of the appropriations made therefor by Congress, as found in 20 Stat. at L. 363, 366, chap. 181; 21 Stat. at L. 181, chap. 211; 21 Stat. at L. 470, chap. 136; 26 Stat. at L. 450, chap. 907; 26 Stat. at L. 1116.
'In making the improvement aforesaid, the defendants did not recognize any right of property in the claimants in and to the right alleged to be affected, and did not assume to take private property in and by the construction of the revetment, but proceeded in the exercise of a claimed right to improve the navigation of the river.
'After the cut-off at De Soto point in 1876, and the construction of the revetment, as aforesaid, the channel and current of the Mississippi river were gradually directed toward the lands of the claimants, situated about 6 miles below said cut-off, and did about the year 1882, reach said lands and thereafter erode and overflow about 2,300 acres of their lands, which overflow has ever since continued. About 400 acres of their lands so eroded and overflowed was prior to the death of said George M. Bedford, through whom the claimants claim title, and about 900 acres of which were overflowed thereafter and prior to said judicial sale, and the residue after said sale. Of the lands so overflowed about 1,300 acres thereof were cleared and in cultivation, of which about 700 acres were so cleared prior to May 2, 1895.
'The damage to the claimants, and each of them, by reason of the washing away of their lands during their respective ownership, as aforesaid, is an excess of $3,000.
'The cause of the deflection of the river upon the claimants' land was the cut-off, which shortened the distance of the stream 6 miles, and thereby increased the velocity of the current, and forced the current to turn, when it struck the Mississippi bank, at an abrupt angle. The revetment did not change the course of the river as it then existed, but operated to keep the course of the river at that point as it then was. If the revetment had not been built, the cut-off would have continued to widen toward the Louisiana bank, and the channel would have continued to move in the same direction. With the widening of the cut-off and the shifting of the channel the angle of the turn below the cut-off would have gradually become less abrupt, and the deflection of the stream upon the claimants' land would have grown less, and the consequent injury to the claimants' land would have been decreased. To what extent the injury would have been decreased is conjectural. The injury done to the claimants' land was an effect of natural causes; the injury caused by the government was by interrupting the further progress of natural causes, i. e., the further change in the course of the river, and is also conjectural.'
The court deduced from the facts that the claimants were not entitled to recover, and dismissed their petitions. 36 Ct. Cl. 474.
Messrs. John C. Chaney, E. T. Brook shire, and Dabney & McCabe for appellants.
[Argument of Counsel from pages 220-222 intentionally omitted]
Assistant Attorney General Pradt and Mr. William H. Button for appellee.
Statement by Mr. Justice McKenna:
Mr. Justice McKenna delivered the opinion of the court: