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NORTHERN PACIFIC RAILWAY COMPANY ET AL. v. MCCOMAS.

decided: June 9, 1919.

NORTHERN PACIFIC RAILWAY COMPANY ET AL
v.
MCCOMAS.



CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF OREGON.

Author: Van Devanter

[ 250 U.S. Page 388]

 MR. JUSTICE VAN DEVANTER delivered the opinion of the court.

This is a suit to quiet title in the plaintiff to five small tracts of land in Umatilla County, Oregon, the right to such relief being predicated solely on adverse possession under color of title for ten years, the period prescribed in a local statute. The plaintiff obtained a judgment, which at first was affirmed by the Supreme Court of the State and then on a petition for rehearing was modified as to two of the tracts. 82 Oregon, 639. The case is here on writ of certiorari.

There was substantial testimony tending to show that McComas, the plaintiff, and his predecessors had been in undisputed possession of the lands for ten years when the suit was brought and that during that period they had been cultivating the lands and claiming the same under the deeds from the State hereinafter mentioned and had put improvements thereon costing more than ten thousand dollars. The other facts are set forth in a stiqualtion found in the record.

The lands are all parts of odd-numbered sections within

[ 250 U.S. Page 389]

     the primary or place limits of the land grant made to the Northern Pacific Railroad Company by the Act of July 2, 1864, c. 217, 13 Stat. 365. At the date of that act they were public lands of the United States and they continued to be such at the time the line of road opposite which they lie was definitely located, save as their status was affected by a pending claim of the State under the swamp-land grant made by the Acts of September 28, 1850, c. 84, 9 Stat. 519, and March 12, 1860, c. 5, 12 Stat. 3. This claim was shown by a swamp-land selection list filed in the Land Department November 23, 1872, and was still pending in that department in 1892 and 1895. In those years the State, without waiting for a determination of its claim by the department, executed deeds for the lands to persons who in turn executed deeds therefor to the plaintiff. As to three of the tracts the swamp-land claim was examined and rejected by the department some time before this suit was begun, and as to the other two it was still pending at that time.

The definite location of the line of road opposite which the lands lie was effected by a map filed in the Land Department and approved June 29, 1883. The grant to the railroad company was of all the odd-numbered sections of public land within designated limits on either side of the line of road as so located, with an express exception of such lands as at the time of definite location were reserved, sold, etc., or were not "free from preemption, or other claims or rights." There was also an express exclusion of all mineral lands and a provision that "in lieu thereof a like quantity of unoccupied and unappropriated agricultural lands, in odd numbered sections, nearest to the line of said road may be selected" under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior. By reason of the pendency of the swamp-land claim at the time of the definite location all the tracts in question were excepted from the grant of lands in place, and this whether

[ 250 U.S. Page 390]

     the claim was well grounded or otherwise; that is to say, the fact that the claim was pending and undetermined prevented the lands from passing under the grant as place lands. Whitney v. Taylor, 158 U.S. 85, 92-94; Northern Pacific R.R. Co. v. Sanders, 166 U.S. 620, 630; Northern Pacific R.R. Co. v. Musser-Sauntry Co., 168 U.S. 604, 609. But through some mistake in the Land Department three of the tracts were erroneously patented to the railroad company as place lands between 1906 and 1909. Without doubt the patents passed the legal title, but the United States was entitled to a reconveyance from the railroad company and in equity remained the owner. Germania Iron Co. v. United States, 165 U.S. 379. The two tracts not patented as place lands were selected by the railroad company in 1908 and a succeeding year in lieu of other lands in place exceuded from the grant by reason of being mineral. These selections were received by the local land office and were awaiting action by the Secretary of the Interior at the time of the trial.

This suit was brought September 25, 1912. Shortly thereafter the railroad company, recognizing that the patents theretofore issued to it for three of the tracts had been erroneously issued, reconveyed the title to the United States and subsequently selected those tracts in lieu of other tracts in place excluded from the grant by reason of being mineral. These selections were received by the local land office; one was approved by the Secretary of the Interior and passed to patent, and the other two were at the time of the trial pending before that officer.

The plaintiff made no effort by pleading or evidence to show that the swamp-land claim was well grounded or that he, his predecessors or the State, had in any way become ...


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