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U.S. Supreme Court

Railroad Company v. Shurmeir, 74 U.S. 7 Wall. 272 272 (1868)

Railroad Company v. Shurmeir

74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 272


1. The meander lines run in surveying fractional portions of the public lands bordering upon navigable rivers, are run, not as boundaries of the tract, but for the purpose of defining the sinuosities of the banks of the stream, and as the means of ascertaining the quantity of the land in the fraction, and which is to be paid for by the purchaser.

2. Congress, in providing, as it does, in one or more acts relating to the survey and sale of public lands bordering upon rivers -- that navigable rivers, within the territory to be surveyed should be deemed to be public highways, and that where the opposite banks of any stream, not navigable, should belong to different persons, the stream and the bed thereof should become common to both -- meant to enact that the common law rules of riparian ownership should apply in the latter case, but that the title, to lands bordering on navigable streams should stop at the stream, and not come to the medium filum.

3. But such riparian proprietors have the same right to construct suitable landings and wharves for the convenience of commerce and navigation as riparian proprietors on navigable waters affected by the ebb and flow of the tide.

4. A government grant of land in Minnesota (9.28 acres), bounded on one side by the Mississippi, was held to include a parcel (2.78 acres) four feet lower than the main body, and which, at very low water, was separated from it by a slough or channel twenty-eight feet wide, through which no water flowed, but in which water remained in pools; where, at medium water, it flowed through the depression, making an island of the parcel, and where, at high water, the parcel was submerged, the whole place chanrobles.com-red

Page 74 U. S. 273

having, previous to the controversy, been laid out as a city and the municipal authorities having graded and filled up the place to the river edge of the parcel.

5. If, by the laws in force in Minnesota in 1859, the recording of a town of city plot, indicating a dedication, for a public purpose, of certain parts of the land laid out, operated as a conveyance in fee to the town or city, yet it could operate only as a conveyance of the fee subject to the purpose indicated by the dedication, and subject to that it must be held by any future claimant.

Schurmeir filed a bill in one of the inferior courts of Minnesota to enjoin the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad Company from taking possession and building its railroad upon certain ground in the City of St. Paul, Minnesota, bordering on the Mississippi, and originally a fractional section of the public lands. The place was alleged by Schurmeir to be a public street and landing.

The railroad company justified their entry as owner in fee of the locus in quo. The issues between the parties were tried by a referee, who found both facts and law in favor of Schurmeir. The facts so found, being undisputed the case was removed for decision on them to the supreme court of the state. That court affirming the referee's judgment, the case was here for review.

The case -- to understand which well it is necessary to refer, in a preliminary way, to certain statutes of the United States governing the surveys and descriptions of public lands -- was thus:

Certain statutes enact [Footnote 1] that the public lands shall be subdivided into townships, sections, and quarter sections and that these subdivisions shall be bounded by north and south and east and west lines unless where this is rendered impracticable by meeting a navigable watercourse &c. The boundaries, and contents of the several sections and quarter sections, are to be ascertained in conformity to the following principles: chanrobles.com-red

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"The boundary line actually run and marked in the surveys returned shall be established as the proper boundary lines of the sections or subdivisions for which they were intended, and the length of such lines as returned shall be held and considered as the true length thereof, and the boundary lines which shall not have been actually run and marked as aforesaid shall be ascertained by running straight lines from the established corners to the opposite corresponding corners; but in those portions of the fractional townships where no such opposite corresponding corners have been or can be fixed, the said boundary lines shall be ascertained by running from the established corners, due north and south or east and west lines (as the case may be) to the watercourse . . . or other external boundary of such fractional township."

There is apparently no law which requires what is hereafter spoken of, and called the "meandering" of watercourses, but the acts of Congress above referred to do require the contents of each subdivision to be returned to, and a plat of the land surveyed, to be made by the surveyor general, and this makes necessary an accurate survey of the meanderings of the watercourse where a watercourse is the external boundary; the line showing the place of the watercourse and its sinuosities, courses, and distances is called the "meander line." [Footnote 2]

The original Act of 17 May, 1796, providing for the sale of these lands, enacts

"That all navigable rivers within the territory to be disposed of shall be deemed to be and remain public highways, and in all cases where the opposite banks of any stream, not navigable, shall belong to different persons, the stream and the bed thereof shall be common to both. [Footnote 3]"

The premises on which the railroad company sought to enter were situated upon a fractional section, duly surveyed by the government surveyor, in October, 1847, the survey chanrobles.com-red

Page 74 U. S. 275

duly approved in March, 1848, and returned to the General Land Office. This fractional section was designated by this survey as lot 1, in section 5, township 28, north of range 22, west of the fourth principal meridian. It was represented by the plat thereof, as bounded on the north by the east and west sectional line, on the west by the north and south sectional line, and on the only other remaining side by the Mississippi River. It was this river that interposed and made this section a fractional one.


At the time of the survey, there was a parcel of land (called by the counsel on one side a sand-bar, reef, or "tow-head," and by the counsel on the other, an island) lying along the shore of the river, about four feet lower than the main land of the fraction, and with a channel or slough between it and the main land. This depression was about 28 feet wide, and the bar or island, in its extreme width, was about 90 feet. Its extreme length was about 160 feet. The main body contained 9.28 acres; this parcel, 2.78 acres.

In high water this parcel of land outside was completely under water; in medium water it was exposed to view, and the water flowed through the depression; but, at very low water there was no flow of water through the depression. chanrobles.com-red

Page 74 U. S. 276

It lay in pools in the depression. Very low water mark was thus the exterior part of the bar or island, and the landing place for boats plying on the Mississippi had always been the south or river side of island.

In the government survey, no mention of or reference to this bar or island was in any way made in the field notes, plat, or map. The fractional parcel, as already said, was represented as lying immediately upon and bounded by the Mississippi River.

The surveyor, however, in meandering the course of the river along the fraction, ran the "meander lines" along the main land of the shore, and not along the southerly line of this bar or island, and thus did not include the space occupied by this depression, and bar or island, in his estimate of the quantity of land contained in the fraction. The field notes showed that the line running 12.83 south, from corner sections 5 and 6, intersected the bank of the Mississippi River, and that a meander post was there set; also, that at a point 16.90 east of said section corner, the township line intersected the left bank of the Mississippi River, and


that a meander post was there also set. The meander line was run, beginning at last-mentioned meander post,


Page 74 U. S. 277

upstream, south 61, west 6.50; south 54, west 6.00; south 46, west 5.00; south 40, west 3.96, to line of sections 5 and 6, at lower end of St. Paul."

In March, 1849, the United States sold and conveyed the land to one Roberts; the patent describing the lot (along with another fractional section, styled No. 2, not connected with this case) as containing so many acres, "according to the official plat of the survey," a plat which, as already said, did not present the bar or island in any way, nor the channel or slough between, but presented the river as the boundary, much as in the map on the page opposite (page <|74 U.S. 276|>276).

In the same spring, Roberts surveyed, laid out, and platted the whole of this fractional parcel (including the bar or island, and intervening depression, in his plat, and as a part of the grant of his patent) into towns, blocks, lots, streets &c., constituting a part of the Town of St. Paul, and caused said plat to be duly recorded, an act which, by the laws of Wisconsin (at that time in force in Minnesota), operated to vest the fee simple of every donation or grant to the public or any corporation or body politic in it for the uses therein named, and no other, and which declared that

"land intended to be for streets, alleys, ways, commons, or other public use, . . . or for any addition thereto, shall be held in the corporate name, in trust to and for the uses and purposes set forth and expressed or intended."

Roberts subsequently sold to Schurmeir two lots, designated on the plan as lots Nos. 11 and 12, in block 29. All the space in front of this block and between this block and the river was designated as "Landing," and as soon as St. Paul was organized into a city, it exercised municipal control over the space, established a grade, and caused the place to be more or less graded, maintaining it as a landing. Schurmeir's two lots and the whole of the so-called "landing" were situated upon what had been the slough or channel.

In 1856, and after this depression had been filled and the whole space between the lots and the river, including the depression, and the bar or island had been graded by the city, and traces of both had been effaced, the space originally chanrobles.com-red

Page 74 U. S. 278

occupied by this bar or island was surveyed by a government surveyor and platted and mapped as "Island No 11" in said section 5.

By virtue of this survey, the railroad company claimed the title under a Congressional land grant of May 22, 1857.

The important question in the case was therefore this: by what exact line was the grant bounded on the river side? Was it:

1. By either the medium filum of the Mississippi or the outside of the sand-bar or island? Or was it:

2. By the meander lines run by the surveyor?

If by either of the former, the railroad company had no right.

If by the latter, Schurmeir had none.

A minor question was whether -- supposing Roberts to have owned the parcel originally -- he had or had not, under the statutes then in force in Minnesota, divested himself of such right by recording his town plot? chanrobles.com-red

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