A Rail Line Runs Through It July 18, 2014 By Ron Driscoll, USGA

Sand Creek Station G.C. traces its history to a time when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad expanded in 1870. (USGA/Chris Keane)

NEWTON, Kan. – Visitors to Sand Creek Station Golf Course see the first homage to the city of Newton’s railroad history on the road coming in: signs featuring the distinctive course logo, a locomotive barreling down a track made up of crossed golf clubs.

Since 2011, the course has hosted a popular regional stroke-play event called The Railer, and a retired engine from the historic Santa Fe Railroad is on permanent display at the course entrance. Soon, those visitors get out on the golf course and see freight trains rumbling through at regular intervals, and they realize that the props have nothing to do with a bygone era.  

Newton has been a railroad town, and it is a railroad town, said Tim Johnson, the assistant city manager. It is who this community still is.

Johnson spent much of the week of the final U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at the golf course, which opened in 2006 and is managed by KemperSports. He explained how luck and good fortune played major roles in the city’s existence.

This community was founded, laid out and developed by the old Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1870, said Johnson, who has been in his position for six years. It was located here because there was a good source of water for steam engines, which had a range of only 125 miles before they needed serious maintenance.

That source of water was Sand Creek and the aquifer beneath it, hence the name. Sand Creek feeds into the Little Arkansas River (pronounced ar-kan-sas, not ar-kan-saw), which in turn feeds into the Arkansas River in Wichita.

Kansas became the 34th state in 1861, and by 1870, the Santa Fe (as the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad was commonly known) was rapidly expanding, with a purpose. The rail line had been given land rights by the federal government to expand its track to the Colorado border, but it needed to reach that border by the end of 1871 or risk losing the land rights.

The Santa Fe extended their rail line as far south as possible – south of the historic path of the Santa Fe Trail, because they were trying to hook up with the Chisholm Trail, said Johnson. The Chisholm Trail was the first great cattle trail to come out of Texas toward the railheads. It ran right through Wichita, the biggest of the famous old ‘cow towns,’ which also included Abilene and Dodge City.

The three major factors in the rail line’s construction: running it south to secure immediate profits from the cattle trade, running it west to reach Colorado by the deadline – along with the critical need for water to run the trains – landed it squarely in Newton, which didn’t even exist at the time, but soon had a compelling reason for being.

Towns out here have to have an economic purpose, said Johnson. There are 627 cities and towns in the state, and virtually every one of them started out as a little market town.

The Santa Fe Railroad is gone, absorbed in 1997 into the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, but Newton’s historic role as a railroad hub continues.

It’s not a major hub, but it’s a hub, said Johnson. Some switching goes on in the railyard here, and locomotive fueling and maintenance facilities are still active here. And several times an hour, the trains run through. Rail freight is going very strong at this point in history.

Among the commodities being hauled through the middle of Sand Creek Station Golf Course (the tracks bisect the course, with nine holes on either side) are grain, coal, petroleum, soybean oil and natural gas.

Anything heavy and in large quantities that needs to move great distances is hauled by rail, said Johnson, who noted that the Southwest Chief – the Amtrak passenger train that runs from Los Angeles to Chicago, through Albuquerque, N.M. – also runs through Newton.

The track that runs through the course goes south through Wichita, Oklahoma and Texas to Houston, said Johnson. The rail to Wichita is also the western boundary of the first nine holes. It goes north up to Topeka and on to Kansas City, Mo. There aren’t that many golf courses that I’ve seen that have a live rail running right through the middle of the course.

Officials, players and spectators for this week’s championship cross between the outward and inward nines via a concrete underpass, which provides an experience not often encountered by those who aren’t Newtonians.

It strikes me that people don’t see these big freights moving up close as often as we do, said Johnson. I don’t even hear them anymore when they go by my office. But you can stand under them while these giant freights of 125 or 150 cars roll right over you, lumbering 6 to 8 feet above your head, 125 to 150 cars strong. When they’re that close, they get my attention.

Johnson has been known to inadvertently return the favor, although it’s doubtful that he rattles the train operators with his salvos.

I’m good at slicing the ball, he said. I’ve landed a few balls in the railroad right of way, and I’ve even hit a train or two when they’re moving. I can’t hit a green, but I can hit a train.

Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.