In the previous post, “The Great Bridge Over the Charles,” we saw the effects of a huge public bridge project, but by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it had become common for the state to grant incorporation to private companies that did much of the development work in the city, including building new bridges. The companies building bridges were often in direct competition with each other, and this competition sparked more building, intense debate, and lawsuits – including one that made it to the Supreme Court.
East Cambridge was sparsely populated before the West Boston Bridge opened in 1793. When the bridge opened, speculators bought lots where they developed housing and storefronts. People, businesses, and industries moved in.1 A few companies also made the terrain ready for more buildings by diking the marshland and digging a canal.2 In the early 1800s, two bridges and four highways to Boston spurred the development of East Cambridge and Cambridgeport.3 (For more information on this growth, see A Very Brief History of Cambridge, 1800-1900 Part I: Cambridge Changes Shape and Size.)
As development continued, a serious rivalry emerged between the proprietors of the West Boston Bridge and those of the Canal Bridge, built in 1809 and popularly called Craigie's bridge.4 Each company built several new roads in Cambridge, naturally directing traffic towards their own bridge and creating business opportunities for specific areas of town. Each time, it was resolutely opposed by the other company, and sometimes by the businesses who benefited from the other bridge.5
A particularly protracted battle began in December of 1805 and lasted until 1809, and resulted in the creation of Cambridge and Mount Auburn Streets.6 Controversially, Andrew Craigie, the main proprietor of the Canal Bridge, was one of the landowners who was paid damages because the new road that he had advocated for cut through his private property.7 The town took legal action against Craigie, and in 1813, the court decided that because he would benefit from the road as much or more as he would be hurt by it, he was not eligible for damages. This became legal precedent in Massachusetts.8 Despite the conflicts, nearly all the proposed streets were built in the end.9
The General Court began discussing the possibility of purchasing both major bridges and making them free as early as 1828.10 In 1846, the court granted a charter to the proprietors of the Hancock Free Bridge, allowing them to build this bridge between the West Boston and Canal Bridges if they bought both of them. They were authorized to collect tolls until they had earned an amount equal to the outlay plus expenses plus a fund for the future maintenance of the bridges.11 Then, in 1857, the court passed an act authorizing the proprietors to give both bridges to the city once the accumulated fund reached a certain point. The bridges were transferred the following year and became free bridges at that point. The city gave a well-attended public procession to mark the occasion.12
The bridges that went directly to Boston did not have an exclusive claim on controversy. The Massachusetts Legislature granted a charter to a company to build the Charles River Bridge to Charlestown in 1785. The bridge was in the same location as the ferry that Harvard had owned since 1650, and replaced the ferry entirely. Ferries had been running from Cambridge since the 1630s, and they had always been government-sanctioned and had the right to collect tolls. The proprietors of the new bridge were entitled to collect tolls for forty years, but during that time they were required to make a fixed annual payment to Harvard, to compensate for the loss of fares collected on the ferry.13
Several other bridges were built in Cambridge in the subsequent decades, but in 1828, the Legislature granted a charter to a company to build the Warren Bridge a very short distance away from the Charles River Bridge. This bridge would be made free and public after six years, which meant that it would very soon direct traffic away from the older bridge where tolls were still collected.
The proprietors of the Charles River Bridge sued, claiming that in granting the Warren Bridge charter, the legislature violated Article I, section 10 of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids states from making laws or decisions that impair the obligation of contracts. The case made it to the Supreme Court in 1831, but the court did not reach a decision, and the case was heard again in 1837.
The Proprietors of the Charles River Bridge argued that they had the same rights originally given to the ferry that the bridge had replaced. Since the ferry owner (in this case, Harvard) had the right to be compensated when a bridge made the ferry obsolete, they argued that they also had the right not to be made obsolete by a new bridge. The court decided there was no reason to believe that the privileges conferred on the ferry also applied to the bridge. Chief Justice Taney wrote, “the charter to the bridge is a written instrument which must speak for itself and be interpreted by its own terms.”
The plaintiffs also argued that the state had previously acted as if they had an obligation not to create competition for the Charles River Bridge. In 1792, in the same act that chartered the West Boston Bridge, the Legislature acknowledged that this newer bridge would compete with the Charles River Bridge, and as compensation, the Legislature extended the term that the older bridge could collect tolls by thirty years. However, the Court found that the wording in the act which explained the extension was granted “for the encouragement of enterprise” showed that this was not about obligation, but about incentives for development that ultimately benefited the public.
Ultimately, the Court decided in favor of the Warren Bridge – that is, they decided that granting the charter for the competing bridge was constitutional.
The decision drew on English† and American precedent that when a corporation is granted the right to do something that benefits the public, any ambiguity in the terms should be interpreted in the best interests of the public. More broadly, it relied on on the precedent that in this type of contract, there is no implied right to protection from competition. Chief Justice Taney explained,
The continued existence of a Government would be of no great value if, by implications and presumptions, it was disarmed of the powers necessary to accomplish the ends of its creation, and the functions it was designed to perform transferred to the hands of privileged corporations.
A modern reader may wonder why the Charles River plaintiffs thought they had a case at all, but in fact, the case was controversial in its day, and two Supreme Court justices dissented from the majority opinion. This case about Cambridge bridges helped to determine how we think about the idea of competition and contracts today.
Many Cambridge residents are familiar with the story of the Longfellow Bridge, named for the poet because he walked over it regularly while courting his future wife and later wrote a poem about the bridge.14 Another favorite is the story of MIT fraternity brothers making their mark on the Harvard Bridge by measuring it in lengths of a pledge named Oliver Smoot.15 But the history of Cambridge's bridges goes deeper than these stories, and encompasses political, economic, and legal change.
†In nineteenth-century America, English law and court decisions from before the American Revolution were often looked to as a legitimate source of insight into legal precedent, since much of our legal system was based on its English origins.
1Paige, Lucius. History of Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1630-1877. (H. O. Houghton and company, 1877), 176.
3 City's Life and Times: Cambridge in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Daphne Abeel. (Cambridge: Cambridge Historical Society, 2007) 2.
13 Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge - 36 U.S. 420 (1837). Justia US Supreme Court Center. http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/36/420/case.html