United States v. Tennessee & Coosa Railroad Company/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

176 U.S. 242

United States  v.  Tennessee & Coosa Railroad Company

 Argued: December 12, 13, 1899. --- Decided: February 5, 1900

The questions which primarily arise on this appeal are based on the provisions of the granting act of 1856 and the forfeiting act of 1890.

The United States contend that the provisions of the former caused a reversion of the title in 1866; the contention of appellees is that some affirmative action, legislative or judicial, on the part of the grantor, was necessary for the forfeiture of the grant, and that until such action the title and all the powers conferred by the act of 1856 continued and could be exercised. And further, that the act of 1890 was the measure of forfeiture.

By the act of 1856 it is enacted--

'That there be and is hereby granted to the state of Alabama, for the purpose of aiding in the construction of railroads, from the Tennessee river, at or near Gunter's Landing to Gadsden, on the Coosa river, . . . every alternate section of land designated by odd numbers for six sections in width on each side of said road.' § 3. And be it further enacted, That the said lands hereby granted to the said state shall be subject to the disposal of the legislature thereof for the purposes aforesaid, and no other. . . .

'§ 4. And be it further enacted, That the lands hereby granted to said state shall be disposed of by said state only in manner following, that is to say: That a quantity of land, not exceeding one hundred and twenty sections for each of said roads, and included within a continuous length of twenty miles of each of said roads, may be sold; and when the governor of said state shall certify to the Secretary of the Interior that any twenty continuous miles of any of said roads is completed, then another quantity of land hereby granted, not to exceed one hundred and twenty sections for each of said roads having twenty continuous miles completed as aforesaid, and included within a continuous length of twenty miles of each of such roads, may be sold; and so, from time to time, until said roads are completed; and if any of said roads is not completed within ten years, no further sale shall be made, and the lands unsold shall revert to the United States.' 11 Stat. at L. 17, chap. 41.

The material part of the act of 1890 is as follows:

'Be it enacted, That there is hereby forfeited to the United States, and the United States hereby resumes the title thereto, all lands hertofore granted to any state or to any corporation to aid in the construction of a railroad opposite to and conterminous with the portion of any such railroad not now completed and in operation for the construction and benefit of which such lands were granted, and all such lands are declared to be a part of the public domain.' 26 Stat. at L. 496, chap. 1040.

These principles are established: That acts like that of 1856 convey a present title, that the conditions expressed in them are subsequent, not precedent, and the rights and powers of the grantee continue until the grant is directly forfeited by legislative or judicial proceedings. If the cases were less certain, less directly applicable to the case at bar, we might attend in detail to the able argument of the counsel for the United States.

In Schulenberg v. Harriman, 21 Wall. 44, 22 L. ed. 551, the leading case, the road in aid of which the grant was made was not constructed, the ten years' limitation upon the sale of the land had expired, and of the provision that the lands should revert to the United States it was said that it was 'no more than a provision that the grant shall be void if a condition subsequent be not performed.' Sheppard's Touchstone was cited and applied as follows:

'In Sheppard's Touchstone it is said: 'If the words in the close or conclusion of a condition be thus, that the land shall return to the enfeoffor, etc., or that he shall take it again and turn it to his own profit, or that the land shall revert, or that the feoffor shall recipere the land, these are, either of them, good words in a condition to give a re-entry-as good as the word 're-enter'-and by these words the estate will be made conditional.' The prohibition against further sales, if the road be not completed within the period prescribed, adds nothing to the force of the provision. A cessation of sales in that event is implied in the condition that the lands shall then revert; if the condition be not enforced the power to sell continues as before its breach, limited only by the objects of the grant, and the manner of sale prescribed in the act.

* * * * *

'In what manner the reserved right of the grantor for breach of the condition must be asserted so as to restore the estate depends upon the character of the grant. If it be a private grant, that right must be asserted by entry or its equivalent. If the grant be a public one it must be asserted by judicial proceedings authorized by law, the equivalent of an interest of office at common law, finding the fact of forfeiture and adjudging the restoration of the estate on that ground, or there must be some legislative assertion of wonership of the property for breach of the condition, such as an act directing the possession and appropriation of the property, or that it be offered for sale or settlement. At common law the sovereign could not make an entry in person, and, therefore, an office-found was necessary to determine the estate, but, as said by this court in a late case, 'the mode of asserting or of resuming the forfeited grant is subject to the legislative authority of the government. It may be after judicial investigation, or by taking possession directly under the authority of the government without these preliminary proceedings.' In the present case no action has been taken either by legislation or judicial proceedings to enforce a forfeiture of the estate granted by the acts of 1856 and 1864. The title remains, therefore, in the state as completely as it existed on the day when the title by location of the route of the railroad acquired precision and became attached to the adjoining alternate sections.'

The power of sale of 120 sections in advance of the commencement of the construction of the road was impliedly decided. That power, however, came more explicitly into consideration in Iowa R. Land Co. v. Courtright, 21 Wall. 310, 22 L. ed. 582, where again a similar granting act was passed on. The court reaffirmed the principles expressed in Schulenberg v. Harriman, and said again by Mr. Justice Field:

'It is contended by the defendants, first, that under the act of Congress of May 15, 1856, no lands could be sold by the state until 20 continuous miles of the road were constructed; second, that if 120 sections could be sold in advance of such construction, they could only be taken from lands adjoining the line of the road from its commencement on the east; and, third, that the grant by the state to the first company was upon conditions precedent, which not having been complied with the title did not pass. Neither of these positions can, in our judgment, be maintained. The act of Congress by its express language authorized a sale of 120 sections in advance of the construction of any part of the road. It was only as to the sale of the remaining sections that the provision requiring a previous completion of 20 miles applied. It is true it was the sole object of the grant to aid in the construction of the railroad, and for that purpose the sale of the land was only allowed, as the road was completed in divisions, except as to 120 sections.

'The evident intention of Congress in making this exception was to furnish aid for such preliminary work as would be required before the construction of any part of the road. No conditions, therefore, of any kind were imposed upon the state in the disposition of this quantity, Congress relying upon the good faith of the state to see that its proceeds were applied for the purposes contemplated by the act.'

Counsel for the United States attempts to distinguish the Courtright Case from the case at bar, and asserts that in Schulenberg v. Harriman the power of the state to sell, subject or not subject to the grantor's rights after the expiration of ten years, although the road had not been finished, was not at issue, and any expressions on that topic were mere dicta. We do not assent to this view. Such power was a necessary consequence of the principles announced, and they have a more extensive authority and application than to the instance in that case.

The title passed to the state, it was decided, continued in the state with all its attributes and power, except as expressly limited, until it should be resumed by the grantor by appropriate proceedings for breach of conditions. Hence the logs in that case, though cut upon land to aid a railroad which had not been constructed, and after the time designated for its construction, and after which all unsold lands should revert to the state, were held to belong to the state. And in the Courtright Case, upon the same principles, it was held that lands sold by the railroad without constructing the road carried title to the vendee. There was a reassertion and an application of the same principles in United States v. Loughrey, 172 U.S. 206, 43 L. ed. 420, 19 Sup. Ct. Rep. 153.

It follows that by the act of June 3, 1856, the state of Alabama took the title to the lands in controversy upon conditions subsequent, and conveyed such title upon the same conditions to the Coosa Railroad; and that it continued in the railroad until determined by proceedings, legislative or judicial, for such forfeiture, and until such determination all the rights and powers conferred by the cat continued and could be exercised.

Those rights and powers were (1) to sell 120 sections of land in advance of the construction of any part of the road; (2) to sell a like quantity upon the completion of any 20 miles of road.

The first power, it is claimed, was exercised by sales to bona fide purchasers. The condition of the second power was not performed-20 continuous miles of road were not completed at the time of the passage of the act of 1890. But it is not denied that 10 and 22-100 miles were completed before the passage of that act.

1. The circuit court found that the first power was exercised as claimed. In other words, that the lands embraced in the first 120 sections were sold to bona fide purchasers in aid of the construction of the road, and 'that the allegations of the bill, that the sale to Carlisle was without consideration and colorable, are not sustained by the evidence, but the sale to Carlisle was bona fide and based on good consideration, and that the proceeds of the sale were used in the construction and equipment of the road.' We think that the findings are sustained by the evidence.

2. By the act of 1890 the United States forfeits, and 'resumes the title thereto, all lands heretofore garnted to any state or to any corporation to aid in the construction of a railroad opposite to and conterminous with the portion of any such railroad not now completed and in operation for the construction and benefit of which such lands were granted, and all such lands are declared to be a part of the public domain.'

The necessary implication of these provisions seems to be that lands opposite completed road are not forfeited or resumed. But the counsel for the United States contests, or seems to contest, the implication. He says: 'The general forfeiture act of September, 1890, intends to forfeit lands opposite unconstructed portions of road. It intends to forfeit them for that reason. It intends by no means to say that no lands are to be otherwise and for other reasons forfeited; that all conditions precedent in all cases of land grants are waived. It purports to waive nothing, but to forfeit for a cause common to all the old grants of lands for railroads-failure to construct prior to September, 1890.' And again: 'That act of 1890 was intended to take away lands, and not to grant them, and it is too well settled to need discussion that lands and rights of the public cannot be granted away except in the most explicit, affirmative terms.' This, perhaps, is but another form of the contention which we have considered and refuted, but we may further say that its error is in assuming that the act of 1890 is claimed to be a grant. The act of 1856 was the grant. The title it conveyed continued until resumed, and as to what lands it was resumed the act of 1890 defines.

These considerations dispose of the contentions as to the 120 sections and the lands opposite completed road, but it is assigned as error that the court of appeals omitted to direct 'a decree in favor of the United States as to lands not within either the said 120 sections or the 17,410.33 acres [lands opposite completed road], whether sold or not.' And it is said: 'The road being 36 miles and a fraction long, and the 120 sections absolutely required to be along 20 consecutive miles, and being in fact, as certified before the war of 1861, at and near the Guntersville end, 16 miles and a fraction of road, at least, remain to be considered. Ten miles, beginning at the Gadsden end, were constructed before the act of 1890, leaving at least 6 miles; so that, obviously, the easy method resorted to by the lower courts of dividing all the lands into 120-section lands and lands opposite constructed road ignores our rights along 6 miles, to say nothing of the large body of lands along the 20 miles referred to, but not in the 120 sections of place and indemnity certified before the war, and opposite uncompleted road in 1890.'

This, it is replied, is contradicted by the findings of the circuit court, and that the record affords no evidence to dispute the findings. The findings were, as we have seen, that the lands embraced in the first 120 sections were sold to bona fide purchasers; that Carlisle was such; that the road from Gadsden to Littleton, a distance of 10.22 miles, was completed and in operation on or before the 29th of September, 1890, and that the lands coveyed to Carlisle by deed dated April 4, 1887, were opposite to that part of the road. The conclusion was that 'there has been no furfeiture of the lands as to which a judicial declaration of forfeiture is sought by the bill, and it is accordingly ordered and decreed that the relief sought by the bill be denied and the bill dismissed.'

Manifestly this decision is dependent upon the identity of the lands described in the bill with those embraced in the first 120 sections and those opposite the 10 miles of completed road. But this does not seem to be the fact. The bill gives a description of the lands by townships, ranges, and sections, and at the argument a map was used showing them, therir relation to the railroad, and its location and termini. It also showed the end of the first 120 sections. Assuming the map to be correct (and it is not questioned), some judgment may be formed of the length and location of the road, the relative situation of the lands described in the bill to the road-to its completed and uncompleted part; and it appears that there are a number of acres of land south of the first 120 sections, and between them and Littleton (a distance of 6 miles), of which a forfeiture should have been declared. In other words, it appears from the evidence and admissions that the road is 36 miles long, that the first 120 sections were selected along a continuous length of 20 miles of the road from Gunter's Landing southward, and that the part of the road which was completed at the date of the forfeiting act was from Gadsden northward 10 and 22/100 miles, and terminated at Littleton. It is evident, therefore, that lands opposite the road from Littleton, northward 6 miles, are not embraced in the first 120 sections and were not opposite completed road September 29, 1890, and hence were forfeited by the act of Congress of that date (supra), and if included in the description of the bill should be declared forfeited.

It is urged, however, by appellees that the decree should not be reversed, because the bill was framed to procure a forfeiture of the grant, not to adjust its limits, and because the question was not raised by the assignment of errors on the appeal to the circuit court nor on this appeal. Neither reason is sufficient. We may notice a plain error, though not assigned, and the prayer in the bill for a forfeiture of the entire grant did not preclude a forfeiture of a part of it.

We think, therefore, a further investigation on the particular point indicated is required by the circuit court, and return the case for such investigation.

The decree of the Circuit Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case remanded to the Circuit Court, with directions to proceed in accordance with this opinion.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).