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Law School Case Brief

Daniel Ball - 77 U.S. (10 Wall.) 557 (1870)


The doctrine of the common law as to the navigability of waters has no application in the United States. Some of the rivers in the United States are as navigable for many hundreds of miles above as they are below the limits of tide water, and some of them are navigable for great distances by large vessels, which are not even affected by the tide at any point during their entire length. A different test must be applied to determine the navigability of the U.S. rivers, and that is found in their navigable capacity. Those rivers must be regarded as public navigable rivers in law which are navigable in fact. And they are navigable in fact when they are used, or are susceptible of being used, in their ordinary condition, as highways for commerce, over which trade and travel are or may be conducted in the customary modes of trade and travel on water. And they constitute navigable waters of the United States within the meaning of the acts of Congress, in contradistinction from the navigable waters of the States, when they form in their ordinary condition by themselves, or by uniting with other waters, a contained highway over which commerce is or may be carried on with other States or foreign countries in the customary modes in which such commerce is conducted by water.


In March, 1868, the Daniel Ball, a vessel propelled by steam, of 123 tons (246,000 pounds) burden, was engaged in navigating Grand River in the State of Michigan, between the cities of Grand Rapids and Grand Haven, and in the transportation of merchandise and passengers between those places, without having been inspected or licensed under the laws of the United States; and to recover the penalty, provided for want of such inspection and license, the United States filed a libel in the District Court for the Western District of Michigan. The libel described Grand River as a navigable water of the United States and alleged that the steamer vessel transported goods destined for ports and places in states other than the State of Michigan, and was thus engaged in commerce between the States. In opposition, it was contended that the river was not a navigable water and that the steamer was only engaged in the internal commerce of the State, and was not, therefore, required to be inspected or licensed. The district court dismissed the libel; however, this was reversed by the Circuit Court for the Western District of Michigan. The Daniel Ball challenged the reversal of judgment.


Was the river in question a navigable water of the United States?




In upholding the judgment of the circuit court, the Court held that Broad River was a navigable water of the United States. The stream was capable of bearing a steamer of 123 tons burden as far as 40 miles from its mouth in Lake Michigan. By its junction with the lake, it formed a continued highway for commerce, both with other states and foreign countries. The Court applied a new test of navigability, rather than the common law test, and concluded that Broad River was under the commercial power and control of Congress. Also, because it was admitted that the steamer was employed in transporting goods destined for other states or goods brought from without the State's limits, it was subject to the regulation of Congress.

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