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U.S. Supreme Court

Northern Pacific Ry. Co. v. Townsend, 190 U.S. 267 (1903)

Northern Pacific Railway Company v. Townsend

No. 160

Submitted January 30, 1903

Decided May 4, 1903

190 U.S. 267


Where the United States grants a right of way by statute to a railroad company which files a map of definite location, and the road is constructed, the land forming the right of way is taken out of the category of public land subject to preemption and sale, and the land department is without authority to convey rights therein. Homesteaders filing entries thereafter can acquire no interest in land within the right of way on the ground that the grants to them were of full legal subdivisions the descriptions whereof include part of the right of way.

Although a right of way granted by the United States through public domain within a state may be amenable to the police power of that state, an individual cannot for private purposes acquire by adverse possession under a statute of limitations of that state any portion of a right of way granted by the United States to a railroad company in the manner and under the conditions as the right of way was granted to the Northern Pacific Railroad Company.

This controversy concerns the validity of an asserted title, by adverse possession, to a portion of the right of way in Wadena County, Minnesota, granted to the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, its successors and assigns, by the second section of the Act of Congress approved July 2, 1864. 13 Stat. 365. The plaintiff in error, the Northern Pacific Railway Company, a corporation of the State of Wisconsin, acquired the railroad and property of the former named company on or about August 31, 1896, by purchase at a sale under foreclosure of certain mortgages.

By the first section of the act of 1864, the Northern Pacific Railroad Company was created a corporation, and was empowered to construct and maintain a continuous railroad and telegraph line from a point on Lake Superior to some point on Puget Sound. In the second section of the act, it was provided, among other things, as follows: chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 190 U. S. 268

"And be it further enacted, That the right of way through the public lands be and the same is hereby granted to said Northern Pacific Railroad Company, its successors and assigns, for the construction of a railroad and telegraph, as proposed, and the right, power, and authority is hereby given to said corporation to take from the public lands adjacent to the line of said road, material of earth, stone, timber, and so forth, for the construction thereof. Said way is granted to said railroad to the extent of two hundred feet in width on each side of said railroad, where it may pass through the public domain, including all necessary ground for station buildings, workshops, depots, machine shops, switches, side tracks, turntables, and water stations, and the right of way shall be exempt from taxation within the territories of the United States. . . ."

Section 3 created a large land grant to secure the construction and continuous maintenance of the road. Construction was to be supervised by commissioners appointed by the President. (Sec. 4.) Section 5 provided how the road must be built, and that the company should not charge the government higher rates than individuals. The right of eminent domain was conferred by section 7. In section 8 conditions of the grant in respect to the commencement and completion of the construction of the road were enumerated. Section 9 reserved the right to Congress to complete the road. Section 10 secured to all the people of the United States the right to subscribe for its stock. Section 11 made it a post road subject to the use of the United States for government service, and subject to such regulations as Congress might impose respecting charges for government transportation. The remaining provisions of the act dealt with the mode of acceptance of the grant, the powers and duties of the board of directors and other officers of the company, the payments of cash assessments, and other subjects. We need only further particularly refer, however, to section 18, wherein it was provided that the railroad company, previous to commencing the construction of its road, should obtain the consent of the legislature of any state through which any portion of its line might pass. Such consent was duly given by the State of Minnesota. chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 190 U. S. 269

The company signified its acceptance in writing, as provided in the act. In November, 1871, the line of road was definitely located, and a duly approved map was filed showing said definite location. This line crossed the northwest quarter of section 24, township 134 north, of range 35 west, of the fifth principal meridian, Minnesota. At that time, as well as prior thereto, said quarter section was public land, to which the United States had full title, and the same was not reserved or otherwise appropriated, nor had any entries or filings or applications to make entry or filing thereon been made. During the years 1870 and 1871, the railroad was duly constructed through the section referred to, and the portion of the road thus constructed was thereafter duly accepted by the President.

In December, 1878, and February, 1882, homestead entries were initiated on said northwest quarter of section 24, and on November 30, 1885, and July 24, 1889, patents which purported to convey the whole of each forty-acre subdivision were issued to Abner Townsend and George H. Brown, respectively. Subsequently, in 1886 and 1888, the title to said northwest quarter was conveyed to the defendant in error Minerva Townsend. During the occupancy of the homesteaders, they cultivated up to the line of the ordinary and snow fences of the railroad, situated respectively fifty and one hundred feet from the center of the track, and such occupancy continued a sufficient length of time to constitute a title by adverse possession under the limitation statutes of Minnesota. Demand was made by the railroad company for possession of that portion of the quarter section which was within the granted right of way, and, upon noncompliance, an action of ejectment was brought in a court of the State of Minnesota to recover possession of the disputed ground. The case was tried by the court without a jury. Lengthy findings of fact were made, and, as a conclusion of law, the court found that the railroad company was entitled to the possession of the premises described, and entered judgment accordingly.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Minnesota reversed the judgment of the trial court. 84 Minn. 152. The cause was then brought to this Court. chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 190 U. S. 270

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