Messrs. Edward S. Robert, Douglas W. Robert, William L. Becktold, R. G. Ranney, and Giboney Houck for plaintiff in error.
[215 U.S. 336, 337] Messrs. M. A. Dempsey, T. D. Hines, R. L. Wilson, and Harry Alexander for defendant in error.
Mr. Justice Holmes delivered the opinion of the court:
This is a suit brought in pursuance of a statute to enjoin the plaintiff in error from maintaining toll gates upon a road alleged to be a public highway. The defendant justifies under a charter granted by a special act of February 24, 1853, which contained the following section: '8. The privileges granted in this charter shall continue for fifty years; provided, that the county courts of the counties of Cape Girardeau and Scott may, at the expiration of twenty years, or any time thereafter, purchase said road at the actual cost of construction, and make it a free road.' Mo. Law 1853, pp. 337, 338. The defendant says that it has not received the cost of construction, and sets up the Constitution of the United States, art. 1, 10, the 14th Amendment, and other less material clauses. The reply is that the right to take tolls expired on February 24, 1903, when the fifty years contemplated by the charter had elapsed. There was a trial and a judgment for the relator, which was affirmed by the supreme court of the state, and the case was brought here. 207 Mo. 54, 105 S. W. 752, 13 A. & E. Ann. Cas. 656.
The plaintiff in error contends that the privileges refered to in 8 are but three; the life of the corporation brought into being by the charter, the exclusive right to maintain a toll road, granted by 2, and the right to take higher tolls than those allowed to toll companies organized under a general act then in force; but that it cannot be deprived of its right to take tolls except by a purchase of the road at the actual cost of construction. It says that the provision for the right to purchase at the expiration of twenty years 'or at any time thereafter' imports that the right to make the road free, even after fifty years, can be gained only by [215 U.S. 336, 340] purchase, and that the clause makes a contract and creates a right of property which it is beyond the power of the state to impair or take away. The supreme court of Missouri took a different view. It held, after an elaborate discussion, that the plaintiff in error never had more than an easement, that this easement was of a public character, charged only with the burden of paying toll during the time allowed by the charter, and that after that time the public had an unencumbered right. The sole question here is whether the construction of the charter and the supposed contract was wrong.
We are of opinion that the decision of the state court was right, and that the meaning of 8 is so plain that it cannot be made much clearer by argument. 'The privileges granted in this charter' means all the privileges, including the privilege of taking toll. The limitation of fifty years would be almost meaningless if tolls were not embraced. The plaintiff in error recognizes the difficulty, and tries to meet it by the suggestion that, as applied to tolls, the word 'privileges' is to be limited to the excess of the tolls allowed above those mentioned in a general act then in force. But the general act is not referred to in the section granting the right to charge tolls, or, indeed, in the charter at all; it was a law with which the specially chartered corporation had nothing to do. There is not the slightest reason to suppose that there was any implied reference to or thought of it when this act was passed. The words of purchase, 'at the expiration of twenty years, or any time thereafter,' do not convey the meaning that the express limitation of fifty years is done away with in the same section that imposes it, but must be read subject to that more specific phrase, even if 'any time thereafter' practically is cut down to any time within the fifty years, so far as its value to the plaintiff in error is concerned. It was a reservation in favor of the county, not the grant of a new right to the plaintiff in error, and its operation is sufficient if as extensive as the need. [215 U.S. 336, 341] As we are of opinion that the plaintiff in error has no such rights as it claims, even if we assume that it has all the rights of the original corporation created by the charter, it is unnecessary to consider other difficulties in the case.