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U.S. Supreme Court

Transportation Company v. Parkersburg, 107 U.S. 691 (1883)

Transportation Company v. Parkersburg

Decided April 30, 1883

107 U.S. 691


1. The City of Parkersburg built within its limits a wharf on the bank of the Ohio River, and prescribed by ordinance certain rates of wharfage on vessels

"that may discharge or receive freight, or land on or anchor at or in front of any public landing or wharf belonging to the city, for the purpose of discharging or receiving freight."

A transportation company, owning duly enrolled and licensed steamers which ply between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and touch at the intermediate points complained that the wharfage was extortionate, and was merely a pretext for levying a duty of tonnage. The company thereupon filed a bill in the circuit court, praying that the prosecution of a suit brought by the city in the state court to collect the wharfage be enjoined and that the ordinance be declared void and that other relief he granted. Held that the character of the charges must be determined by the ordinance itself, and as it on its face imposed them for the use of the wharf only, and not for entering the port or lying at anchor in the river, the court, though it might deem them unreasonable and exorbitant, will not entertain an averment that they were intended as a duty of tonnage, nor inquire into the secret purpose of the body imposing them.

2. Wharfage is the compensation which the owner of a wharf demands for the use thereof; a duty of tonnage is a charge for the privilege of entering, or loading at or lying in, a port or harbor, and can be laid only by the United States.

3. The question as to which of these classes, if either, a charge against a vessel or its owner belongs is one not of intent, but of fact and law -- of fact whether the charge is imposed for the use of a wharf or for the privilege of entering a port; of law whether, upon the facts which are shown to exist, it is wharfage or a duty of tonnage. chanrobles.com-redchanrobles.com-red

Page 107 U. S. 692

4. Although wharves are related to commerce and navigation as aids and conveniences, yet being local in their nature, and requiring special regulations at particular places, the jurisdiction and control thereof, in the absence of congressional legislation on the subject, properly belong to the states in which they are situated.

5. A suit for relief against exorbitant wharfage cannot, as one arising under the Constitution or the laws of the United States, be maintained in the circuit court, even though it be alleged that the wharfage was intended as a duty of tonnage, the alleged intent not being traversable.

The case is stated in the opinion of the Court.


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