A most extraordinary attempt has just been made to legislate away the rights of some of my clients. I desire to give to the Legislature and the public a brief statement of the facts of this unprecedented attempt to legislate away private rights. Both here and at Harrisburg this movement was studiously concealed until too late to be counteracted. I shall state the facts publicly believing that the correction of these abuses will come sooner or later.
At the session of 1850 a number of petitions were presented, of which the following in the handwriting of James S. Craft, Esq., who never had any connection with this project except that of a public spirited citizen, is a specimen. I annex a few of the names to show that Wood street was largely represented, and many of those assessed were among the Petitioners.
Signed by citizens of Pittsburgh for an act to extend Hancock street from Penn to Liberty streets, in said City.
To the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania—in General Assembly met:—
The Memorial of the undersigned, citizens of Pittsburgh or owners of Real Estate therein, respectfully represents that, owing to the unfortunate original Law of the said City, no one of its streets connects directly the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers, as all of said stseets [sic] might have done. This radical defect of intercommunication, although universally felt and deplored, is now beyond general remedy. But it so happens that near the middld [sic] of the City, and of course where most desirable, one thorough avenue can yet be perfected. Wood street commencing on the Monongahela, extends to Liberty st., opposite Irwin's Alley, now but twenty feet wide, for two hundred and forty feet to Hancock street, which, by the commendable liberality of the adjacent property holders, has been opened as a street. All that is now necessary, is legislative provision for opening said alley, and thus connecting Wood and Hancock streets and through them both said way by an almost direct line across, and through the heart of said City, its trade and business.
They, therefore, pray your Honorable Bodies to pass an act authorizing the Court of Quarter Sessions of Allegheny county to appoint seven disinterested persons to view the ground and report whether Irwin's alley, as above described, should be opened to the breadth of forty feet between Penn and Liberty streets, and also to ascertain what damages would be incurred thereby, and assess them upon such property as they may find will be benefitted by such improvement.
|R. E. McGowin,||Walter F. Fahnestock,|
|Wade Hampton,||James R. Speer,|
|James S. Craft,||John McCracken,|
|John F. Perry,||Danl. Armstrong,|
|R. P. Tanner & Co.,||Alfred W. Marks,|
|McCurdy & Loomis,||Edward Gregg,|
|Whitmore & Wolff,||McGill & Bro.,|
|H. A. Coffin,||M. Swatzwelder,|
|Jno. A. Wilson,||James McCully,|
|N. Grattan Murphy,||Marshall, Wallace & Co.|
|Cooper & Lavely,||L. Wilmarth & Co.,|
|John Shipton,||H. Childs & Co.,|
|J. & R. Floyd,||Wm. Bagaley,|
|Myers & Hunter,||Wm. Larimer, jr.|
|F. Lorenz,||S. Moore,|
|H. Sterling,||Thos. Kennedy, Jr.,|
|B. C. Sawyer,||Jno. H. Mellor,|
|Morgan Robertson,||Richard Bard,|
|S. R. Johnson,||J. D. Williams & Co.,|
|Robert McKnight,||Joel Mohler,|
|Jas. T. Kincaid,||Henry Higby,|
|Wm. J. Howard,||Hersey, Fleming & Co.,|
|P. A. Maderia,||Wm. Douglass,|
|Joseph Coltart,||John Walker,|
|B. L. Fahnestock,||Jno. M. Sawyer,|
|H. Smyser,||Saml. McClurkan,|
|Thos. Marshall,||S. M. Wickersham.|
These petitions, the originals of which are now in my possession were presented in Senate, March 4, 20 and 25, and April 2, 1850. How many more may have been presented I cannot say. The Legislatuye [sic] on the 6th of April, 1850 passed the act prayed for, accompanied, however, with the following proviso:—"that said street shall not be opened unless the said viewers shall ascertain after a careful examination that the benefits which will accrue to property in the vicinity of the street will be fully equal to the damages and costs which will be occasioned by the same." The evident design of this proviso was throw the responsibility from the Legielature [sic], which did not understand the subject, to the viewers, who were required to fully examine and determine the same. These viewers are admitted to be seven of the most intelligent gentlemen in the county, to wit: Gen. J. K. Moorhead, Josiah King, Hon. Thomas M. Howe, Hon. Wm. Porter, John Anderson, P. Mulvany and Robert Watson. The whole matter was before them about six weeks, and all the parties were fully heard by themselves and their counsel. Their report was prepared with great care—and though now said to contain numerous errors, able counsel who reviewed it in the court below and the Supreme Court failed to convince either of these tribunals of their existence, and though a few individuals have always resisted this matter with great zeal, yet, as is shown in the opinion of the court below, the number who remonstrated were less than one-third in number and a little over one-fourth in value of all the persons assessed. Three-fourths in value and two-thirds in number have always acquiesced in this decision. It was hoped that this question when affirmed by the Supreme Court was finally settled, especially as the rights of third and entirely innocent persons had become involved therein.
The property appropriated in the opening of Hancock street belonged to J. Tomlinson, and other heirs of H. F. Schweppe, and so far as these latter were concerned, was their all. These owners were all hostile to the original legislation, because they saw it would embarrass them in the disposition of their property.
The estate of Schweppe is encumbered by some $6,000 of debts, and has been kept out of market for the last 3 years by the agitation of the project. Interest and cost have been accumulating. The property could only be rented from 6 months to 6 months at a time, and is now without a tenant. Mrs. Schweppe and a large family of children are now without a dollar of income, and dependent upon friends for their daity [sic] support.
John Irwin, of Allegheny, the trustee and administrator of Schweppe's estate, estimates the injury already done to the estate at $2,000, and if the matter cannot now be closed, may result in the entire destruction of their property, for no one can be induced to rent or purchase property liable to be kicked and cuffed about in this manner. The property of Mr. Tomlinson has suffered in a similar manner. The Rev. J. M. Smith, since the confirmation of these Hancock street proceedings, and on the faith of this Legislation, has purchased property on the corner of Hancock and Penn streets; engaging to give $1,000 beyond what he would have done only for these proceedings. He now could have no redress. The entire property of J. F. Perry, at the foot of Hancock street, costing about $35,000, has since the final confirmation of these proceedings become vested in trustees for the benefit of creditors. How much other property may have changed hands in that vicinity on the faith of that legislation, I cannot say—as I speak only what I feel in regard to which I stand in the relation of Consul. This alone has cost its present owners about $60,000, and I estimated its liability to be ǝffected [sic] for good and ill by this legislation at not less than $10 or $12,000. Thus situated I had taken the precaution to speak personally to the Senator from this District. I explained to him its presrnt [sic] position and requested if the matter should be agitated that I should at the earliest moment be informed of the same. He not only promised to give me this notice, but added the unasked assurance that I need not fear any inteference [sic] with matters pending in Court. This assurance I communicated to my clients, and on this we all relied.
Judge then of our surprise, when about two days after the repealieg [sic] act had been signed by the Governor, we learned for the first time that a section had been attached to an omnibus bill in the Senate, and had passed that body and day or two after the House, without a word of explanation designed to nullify the act of 1850, and all judicial proceedings under it.
The mover himself—no one of the Senators or Representatives or the Executive, understanding the present position or bearing and effect of this legislation. Up to the very day this bill was signed by the Governor, not a single letter, memorial or petition was publickly presented in either House. Secret letters and hired borers had done the work. Even on the day this bill was signed, a few names representing about $2,000 out of $16,000 assessed, was all that have ever been publickly presented in either House. On this flimsey pretence fellow-citizens, has the Legislature, if it possesses the power, undertaken to nulify [sic] 146 lines partaking of the nature of judgments solemnly passed upon, and ratified by the Court of Common Pleas and Supreme Court. Property to the value of $16,000 belonging to the widow and the orpan [sic], (originally taken from them without their consent, but to which they had at length yielded their assent, and now hoped to receive the equivalent fixed by law,) is, after being kicked and cuffed by the two contending parties, until depreciated one-half in value, is now proposed to be returned without one cent of compensation. New rights, new interests, and new contracts, based on the faith of former legislation, ratified by repeated judicial decisions have been ruthlessly violated without hearing, without notice to any one of the several hundreds whose rights are, or may be effected [sic] by this repeal. I doubt if the wildest decree of Louis Napoleon exceeds in atrocity this wanton disregard of private rights. This, however, I believe is not a solitary instance. I understand that within the last forty-eight hours, the Senate of Pennsylvania under the guize of construing a former act of Assembly, have undertaken to legislate away the rights which our Courts had, decided to be vested in Matilda Elliot, a lunatiɔ [sic]. A week since I saw the machinery at work in the shape of outside borers, designed to extinguish poor Matilda's rights. But what business have widows, orphans and lunatics to have any rights or interests, unless they have also money to employ borers to protect them?
An end must in some way, be put to this legislative interference, with cases pending in Court, or our titles in Pennsylvania wil [sic] not be worth the parchment on which they are written. If tolerated at all, a pretence will never be wanted for interference, whenever the whim or caprice of the legislators desires it. Especially now when both brains and money have systemised boring into a profession, and the third house is moreinfluential [sic] than the first and second.
The opponents of the opening of Hancock st., have mainly relied upon two objections:
1. That the assessments extend all the way down Wood street. But look at the petitions for the law, and the grounds on which they ask it? Is it not avowedly that it will largely benefit the business of that street? If the viewers erred, it was in supposing that residents on Wood street understood their own interests.
2. The assessing of other's property to pay the damages. But this, I maintain, has been the general law in Pittsburgh for the last twenty years. Since the opening of Market alley and Ferry street, about twenty years since, on this principle, what streets or alleys have been opened on any other? There is a general law applicable to all the new Wards, substantially the same as this. The Select and Common Councils, at their last meeting, passed instructions in favor of a similar law for several streets in the Fifth Ward. But, in addition to this, if the memorials are examined, the names of a large number of those assessed will be found to have been petitioners. They, having asked this mode to be applied to their neighbors, ought not to complain if, in its execution, it tramps on their own toes.
Permit me, in conclusion, to again say, the question is no longer the policy of the original law—new rights, new interests and new contracts have been entered into on the faith of that legislation. Sixteen thousand dollars' worth of property have been wrested from the widow and the orphans to open this street—largely depreciated in value, by being kicked and cuffed by the two parties. Liens pending in Court have been ruthlessly attempted to be nullified by the Legislature, without notice to any of the parties, even without ever being publicly asked for. If ever the policy of the original law was questionable, orwrong [sic], if you please, would not a thousand times more injury be perpetrated by permitting its repeal, in the manner it has been done?
In speaking thus frankly, I have designed to treat the Legislature with entire respect, believing that that body had been outrageously imposed upon, and that not even the mover, much less the members generally, understood the position of this question. I ask, however, as a simple act of justice of that body, to reinstate this Hancock street act to the position in which they originally found it. Then, if any injustice has been done, our courts will be alone responsible. Let not the Legislature go in search of Quixotic objects on which to exercise their sympathy, over which the Constitution has given them no supervision or control.
T. J. BIGHAM.
April 2, 1852.