Down in the Hole

The old coal-mining town of Leyden is a tough place--but not too tough to die.

The road to Leyden, Colorado, isn't much wider than a trail. A simple sign on Highway 93 a few miles north of Golden points east, directing motorists onto a narrow gravel road that twists through a break in the dun-colored rock formations of the hogback. For more than two miles, Leyden Road winds through a narrow foothills valley, past grassy fields speckled with goldenrod.

The first sign of the town is the trees. Giant cottonwoods line the creek that runs to the south, and the cluster of 33 homes that make up the town are surrounded by large, leafy elms whose stature makes it clear that people have lived here a long time. Most of the houses are similar: small square boxes with two windows on each side, a front and back door, and roofs made of corrugated iron or tar shingles. The five streets--First, Second, Third, Quaker and Scott--are unpaved, and the onetime schoolhouse and country store have both become appendages to private homes.

Founded in 1903 as a company town for coalminers, Leyden has led a hard life for nearly a century, clinging to existence despite underground coal fires, a near-fatal lack of water and the presence of radioactive plutonium at the Rocky Flats nuclear-bomb factory three miles away. When the mine shut down and the fires went out, the town picked up another claim to infamy: Public Service Company bought the mine and turned its subterranean chambers into a massive storage facility for deadly natural gas.

Today, however, Leyden faces a new kind of threat: real estate development sparked by the boom of the 1990s. A remnant of the old Colorado that predates shopping centers and condominiums, Leyden at one time supplied the coal that powered the Denver Tramway Corporation's hundreds of miles of streetcar routes. That rail network helped spawn the vast metropolis that has since crept within a mile of Leyden and now lies just over the hill. But the town's current residents cherish their pocket of small-town charm.

"I don't think I'd live any other place," says Frank Pacheco, who has lived in Leyden since 1950. "Wherever you spend the years is where you want to stay. There's people who wouldn't want to live here, and I go to town and see how they live, and I wouldn't want to live like they do."

Retired Arvada schoolteacher Lois Lindstrom, who has researched the history of the town, found herself captivated by Leyden's offbeat appeal. "It's a fascinating little community," she says. "It's a wonderful reminder of what coal camps used to be like. It's like an artifact."

However, Leyden's historic isolation is fading, and the signs of change are as close as Quaker Street. There, on a recent weekday morning, a woman zooms past in an emerald-green Lexus, followed by a truck carrying a load of two-by-fours to a construction site a half-mile away. They're both headed to spanking-new subdivisions where homes sell for as much as $600,000.

So far, Leyden itself has been untouched by the rapid growth. In fact, not much has changed since the coal mine shut down in 1950. But the little town hasn't escaped the notice of real estate agents, who in the past two years have begun calling homeowners to make offers on their property. The town's roughly 100 residents stand to turn a healthy profit on their ramshackle homes, which would likely be torn down to make way for larger dwellings. But many are vowing to stay put and resist the blandishments of developers.

"I get calls, but I'm not interested in selling," says Lawrence Sandusky, who bought a home in Leyden in 1951. "My sons can sell it after they bury me."

This isn't the first time Leyden has been threatened with extinction. After the coal mine closed and the miners left, the town was largely deserted. An enterprising businessman bought the town lock, stock and barrel from the Tramway company and began selling the tiny homes. The buyers were primarily people with limited incomes who liked the idea of living in the country.

"My wife's uncle used to own land on the south side of 44th Avenue," says Paul Davis, who moved to Leyden in the early 1950s. "We lived in Kentucky and I had a farm, but it wasn't worth a darn. He said, 'Why don't you come on out?' We came with nothing but our suitcases, and I found a job two days later."

"We were hillbillies," adds his wife, Annie, with a laugh. "When we first came out there was a big snow, and we were ready to go back."

Instead, the Davises paid $3,200 for a house in Leyden. They liked the rural atmosphere, which reminded them of home, and they soon became an integral part of the community. Paul got work as a truck driver for Coors. A daughter was born, and the family tended their garden and began improving their small home. Over the years, most of Leyden's residents have altered the simple four-room layout of the company houses, adding bedrooms, family rooms, decks and even basements.

"These old houses didn't amount to much," says Sandusky. "I remodeled it once and then did some more. Most of the ideas were my wife's."

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