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002272564

Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge. Records, 1828: Finding Aid

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© President and Fellows of Harvard College

Descriptive Summary

Location: Harvard Depository
Call No.: 002272564
Repository: Harvard Law School Library, Harvard Library, Harvard University
Creator: Charles River Bridge
Title: Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge records
Date(s): 1828
Quantity: 2 boxes (.6 linear feet)
Language of materials: English
Abstract: Records of the trial between the proprietors of the Charles River Bridge and the proprietors of the Warren Bridge, heard before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, 1828. In this famous case, the plaintiff claimed that the Warren Bridge charter impaired the obligation of the state's earlier contract, and was therefore unconstitutional.

Processing Information:

Processed by Amelia Wilbur, July 2011

Conditions Governing Access:

Access to these papers is governed by the rules and regulations of the Harvard Law School Library. This collection is housed off-site at the Harvard Depository. Retrieval requires advance notice of two business days. Consult the Historical and Special Collections staff for further information.

Conditions Governing Use:

The Harvard Law School Library holds copyright on some, but not all, of the material in our collections. Requests for permission to publish material from this collection should be directed to the Historical and Special Collections staff. Researchers who obtain permission to publish from the Harvard Law School Library are also responsible for identifying and contacting the persons or organizations who hold copyright.

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Historical/Biographical Information


In 1640, the Massachusetts General Court granted ferry rights between Boston and Charlestown to the recently founded Harvard College. Harvard College operated a ferry on the Charles River until 1785, when a group led by Thomas Russell of Boston petitioned the legislature to charter a bridge over the Charles River. The joint legislature approved the petition on February 25, 1785, and the General Court confirmed the grant on March 9, incorporating Thomas Russell and associates as the "Proprietors of the Charles River Bridge". The proprietors -- including, in addition to Russell, such prominent figures as Nathaniel Gorham,James Swan, and John Hancock -- were to pay Harvard College £200 annually for the duration of the forty year charter, after which the bridge would revert to the state. The Charles River Bridge company enjoyed a monopoly on transportation across the Charles River until 1792, when, despite vigorous protest on the part of the proprietors, the legislature authorized the construction of the West Boston Bridge between Cambridge and western Boston. In a concession to the Charles River Bridge company, whose revenues risked being diminished by the new bridge, the legislature extended the term of the charter from forty to seventy years.
The interests of the Charles River Bridge proprietors were even more gravely threatened in 1823, when a group of Charlestown merchants, led by John Skinner and Isaac Warren, presented a petition to the legislature for a charter to build a toll-free bridge over the Charles River. Four years and several bills later, in March 1827, the legislature passed an act to establish the Warren Bridge Corporation. According to the terms of the charter, the bridge would be turned over to the state and become free to the public after the proprietors had recouped the cost of construction. In June of 1828, construction of the Warren Bridge began. On the 28th of the same month, Daniel Webster, Lemuel Shaw, and Benjamin Gorham, acting on behalf of the Charles River Bridge company, filed a bill in equity in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, claiming the unconstitutionality of the Warren Bridge charter due to its appropriation of private property for public use without compensation, and violation of the implied monopoly granted by the state's earlier contract.
After a hearing, the court unanimously rejected the plaintiff's motion for an injunction to stop construction of the new bridge. After further hearings in state court had failed to impede the construction of the Warren Bridge, the Charles River Bridge proprietors appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Marshall, Justice Joseph Story, and Justice Smith Thompson, agreed that the Massachusetts legislature had indeed violated the obligation of contract clause in Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution, but no final decision was reached. By the time the case came before the court again in 1837, a new Chief Justice, Roger Taney, had been appointed, and the Warren Bridge had been constructed and become a toll-free bridge, causing the Charles River Bridge to close. Daniel Webster and Warren Dutton represented the Charles River Bridge Company, while Simon Greenleaf, a Harvard Law School professor, and John Davis,a Whig senator, represented the Warren Bridge Company. A decision was read on February 14th, 1837, in favor of the Warren Bridge Company.

Scope and Contents

This collection contains the records of the 1828 Massachusetts Supreme Court trial between the proprietors of the Charles River Bridge and the proprietors of the Warren Bridge, including letters, motions, depositions, interrogatories, and other evidence. Among the exhibits presented as evidence are copies of documents dating from 1630, including records of the President and Fellows of Harvard College, The General Court of Massachusetts, the proprietors of the Charles River Bridge, and the Selectmen of Charlestown.

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