Charles River Bridge Co. v. Warren River Bridge, 11 Peters (36 U.S.) 420; 9 L. Ed. 773 (1837)

Charles River Bridge Co. v. Warren River Bridge, 11 Peters (36 U.S.) 420; 9 L. Ed. 773 (1837)

Facts—The Charles River Bridge Company brought action to stop the construction of the Warren River Bridge on the ground that the act authorizing its construction impaired the obligation of the contract between the Charles River Bridge Company and Massachusetts. The defendant received permission to erect another bridge of similar span within a few rods of the original bridge and was to give it to the state when paid for. The contention was that an original grant of ferry privileges to Harvard College in 1650 and a charter of 1785 incorporating the Proprietors of the Charles River Bridge (to which were transferred the rights of the college under the grant of 1650) constituted a contract whereby the plaintiffs were vested with an exclusive right to maintain a bridge “in that line of travel.” Thus the Charles River Bridge Company implied that the privileges originally granted to Harvard College were transferred to them by means of the charter of 1785.

Question—Does the state grant of a charter to the Warren River Bridge Company violate its earlier charter with the Charles River Bridge Company?


ReasonsC.J. Taney (5–2).

“If a contract on that subject can be gathered from the charter, it must be by implication, and cannot be found in the words used.  In charters of this description, no rights are taken from the public, or given to the corporation, beyond those which the words of the charter, by their natural and proper construction, purport to convey.”

Implied privileges could prove to be unfavorable to the public and to the rights of the community; therefore it has always been the general operation of the Court to rule in favor of the public where an ambiguity exists in a contract between private enterprises and the public. Taney argued that his interpretation was more likely to promote progress as new forms of transportation su- perseded older ones, with which they would sometimes come into conflict. J. Story argued in dissent that the original monopoly granted to Harvard College remained implicit in the grant to the Charles River Bridge Company.

Note—Scholars often use this case to illustrate the change in the Court between the chief justiceships of John Marshall and Roger Taney. Whereas Marshall had stressed property rights, Taney was more interested in the rights of the majority.

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