Iowa Town Sues Rail Patron Over 1800s Job Pact

April 23, 2004 ( - One Iowa town isn't taking the loss of its jobs lying down.

, Iowa is taking the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway to court, claiming the railroad violated a 146-year-old contract with the city when it cut more than 350 jobs from the local workforce. “All I hear about are job losses in this county and now I can do something about it,” said Mike Edwards, mayor of this town of 27,000.

The city sued last month in an Iowa court, the Associated Press reported. City officials said they hope the railroad finds it less costly to move jobs back to Burlington than to pay the city 146 years of back rent for use of public land. City officials have not put a dollar figure on that.

The railroad’s only response so far has been a motion to move the case to federal court. BNSF spokesman Steve Forsberg said only: “We continue to believe the city’s claims are unfounded.”

Edwards said the city begged the railroad to stay, offering tax breaks and other incentives to no avail. “Doing nothing just wasn’t an option,” the mayor asserted. “We tried our little carrot approach, and that didn’t work. So now we’re going to try the stick

The town’s history is intertwined with that of the railroad that took the town’s name. The Burlington & Missouri River Railroad was incorporated in 1852 as tracks were reaching west across the frontier. When Congress established the city of Burlington in 1836, in what was then the Wisconsin Territory, it required that about 20 riverfront acres be used for public purposes.

Two decades later, the city boosted the growing railroad by letting it use the land at no cost to build a train yard at the spot where a railroad bridge connects Illinois and Iowa. There was a catch: The 1858 agreement said that in exchange for free use of the land, the railroad must maintain its principal repair shops in Burlington.

For a time, the railroad did so, establishing the West Burlington shops for that purpose. In their heyday around the end of the 19 th century, the shops employed up to 2,000 workers – blacksmiths, mechanics, machinists, carpenters, upholsterers and other tradesmen engaged in building and repairing steam locomotives and freight and passenger cars.

Then, in 1995, the railroad joined with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway to create the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, now based in Fort Worth, Texas. Last year, the company started to shift its repair work from the West Burlington shops to longtime Santa Fe shops in Topeka,

At the beginning of last year, BNSF laid off 260 Burlington workers, while, in December, 93 more jobs were moved to Topeka and another shop in Galesburg, Ill. Now, there are a comparatively scant 44 workers are left at the West Burlington shops. “We still feel that we have a contractual agreement,” City Manager Bruce Slagle said. “And this is a breach of contract.”