Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Co.

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13 How. (54 U.S.) 518 (1852), argued 1 Dec. 1851, decided 6 Feb. 1852 by vote of 7 to 2; McLean for the Court, Taney and Daniel in dissent. To provide access from Wheeling (now in West Virginia) to the western states, the Virginia legislature in 1847 chartered the Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company to build a suspension bridge across the Ohio River. Pennsylvania brought suit based on the Supreme Court's original jurisdiction to abate the bridge as a public nuisance because it obstructed passage of large steamboats and thus constituted an impediment to interstate commerce and a violation of interstate compacts. At a more basic policy level, the litigation reflected the struggle between older waterborne transportation technology and the newer railroads.

Justice John McLean's majority opinion held that Pennsylvania had standing to sue because of financial losses to its state-owned internal improvements (the Main Line). The Court ordered abatement of the bridge by either removal or elevation to 111 feet. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and Justice Peter V. Daniel argued in dissent that in the absence of a federal statute declaring an obstruction of the Ohio River to be a public nuisance, the Court lacked jurisdiction.

Six months later Congress designated the bridge lawful at its extant height. In a later suit of the same name in 1856, a divided Court held that because of the federal statute, the bridge did not constitute an obstruction of interstate commerce. The dimensions of the Wheeling bridge were used throughout the nineteenth century to determine clearances of bridges across navigable rivers.

Elizabeth B. Monroe

Subjects: Law.

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