Abstract: The Geography of Jurisprudence: Public Lands for Private Profit, Illinois Central v. Illinois, 1892

Joshua Salzmann


The Supreme Court's ruling in Lochner v. New York (1905) has come to symbolize the court's supposed antipathy to state economic regulation. However, late nineteenth-century jurists, including the famous advocate for Constitutional limitations on legislative power Stephen Field, often encouraged state economic regulations in key industries like transportation. This paper examines the history of one such case, Illinois Central v. Illinois (1892). In Illinois Central, Field nullified an 1869 grant by the Illinois legislature which conveyed valuable submerged lands along Chicago's waterfront to the Illinois Central Railroad. The state, Field proclaimed, could not abdicate control over submerged lands along Chicago's waterfront because the legislature was obligated to hold and manage those lands "in trust" for the people. This paper contends that Field asserted public power in Illinois Central not as a proto-progressive, but as a good capitalist trying to promote economic development. Field recognized that Chicago's harbor, positioned at a break-point in east-west rail and water transshipment, occupied a crucial geographic location. Field reasoned that state ownership and regulation of the lands beneath Chicago's waterfront was essential to ensure that shippers had access to the city's port. Ultimately, Field's ruling had unanticipated consequences that transformed Chicago's waterfront and twentieth-century environmentalism.