Down in the Hole

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

Sandusky and his late wife, Lucille, were attracted to Leyden by the bargain-basement prices for homes. The young couple moved to Colorado from Kansas after Sandusky, who served in Europe during World War II, was released from the Army Air Corps. "We didn't have much money," Sandusky says. "We lived in a trailer, and my wife was sick of it. We lived in the trailer for nine months while I fixed up the house."

Sandusky, a construction foreman, was handy enough to eventually add a new kitchen, bathroom and basement bedroom to the house. The couple raised two sons in Leyden; the elder son went through third grade in the two-room schoolhouse that had served the miners' children. When the schoolhouse closed down in the mid-1950s, the children were bused to a new school in Arvada.

Lucille died a year ago, and Sandusky finds it harder to work on the house without her, though he hopes to add wood paneling to the basement this winter. "I lost heart in doing this stuff," he says sadly. "After all, I did most of this stuff for my wife."

Now the 76-year-old widower lives alone with a gray poodle with pink ribbons in her hair named Tina Bell. His sons want him to join them in Idaho, but he vows to stay in Leyden. "I like it here," he says firmly. "I'm not leaving."

Leyden was born as a coal mine. The town was simply an afterthought.
Martin Leyden surveyed the area and found the rich seams of coal sometime in the late 1860s. However, his good fortune didn't last long: In 1870 Leyden and two other miners were found dead inside the mine that bore his name. "There is no doubt but that they came to their death by foul air," reported the Rocky Mountain News on September 14, 1870.

By 1876 the mine was back in operation, supplying coal to fast-growing Denver. Much of Denver's growth was fueled by an elaborate network of streetcars, which served "suburbs" like Park Hill and Washington Park. Eventually, ownership of the multiple streetcar systems was consolidated into the Denver Tramway Corporation, a politically powerful monopoly that was the largest employer in Denver at the turn of the century.

That company was looking for a reliable way to power its hundreds of electric streetcars, and it found it in Leyden. In 1901 the Denver & Northwestern railway was incorporated with the mission of building rail lines to points surrounding Denver, and it began work on a line to Leyden. Denver Tramway owned both the Denver & Northwestern and the coal mine, and the intent was to have a readily accessible supply of coal near Denver that could be controlled by the streetcar company.

A streetcar line was built that stretched from northwest Denver's Berkeley Park all the way to Leyden. In 1903 the Leyden mine began shipping coal fifteen miles to the Denver Tramway's powerhouse at 14th and Platte streets, the same building that now houses the Forney Transportation Museum. Construction also began that year on small houses for the miners and their families, and the town of Leyden was born.

"Originally the houses were four rooms, with a simple lightbulb in each room," says Lois Lindstrom. "The water came from hydrants in the street, and they had outhouses out back. It was a very bare kind of existence."

Despite its remote location, Leyden wasn't totally isolated. The Denver Tramway's inter-urban car Number 82 ran every hour between downtown Denver and Leyden. The train carried one car for passengers and at least one car full of coal for the powerhouse. The streetcar also provided city residents with an easy day trip, including wealthy society types who wanted to see how the other half lived. A woman from a prominent Denver family once told Lindstrom that she and her family would take guests on the streetcar in the summer to see the miners. "It was like slumming," says Lindstrom. "Part of the entertainment was to get in the interurban and ride out to Leyden."

Ridership on the Denver Tramway's rail system reached a peak of 112 million passengers in 1945. But the rise of the diesel bus in the postwar years quickly changed the face of public transportation in Denver. The tramway company began phasing out its train system and decided to power the remaining streetcars with electricity from Public Service Company instead of running its own powerhouse. The Leyden coal mine closed forever on February 28, 1950, and Leyden's days as a company town were over.

Even in the 1950s, Leyden's isolation from the rest of the world was beginning to slip away. As the Cold War raged, the federal government began scouting the foothills west of Denver for a place to build a huge nuclear-weapons factory. The Rocky Flats plant opened three miles northwest of Leyden in 1954. The plant stockpiled tons of plutonium, and over the decades the public became increasingly alarmed over health risks posed to area residents. Reports of groundwater and soil contamination in the area east of the plant were big news in the 1980s. Leyden's residents tended to take it all in stride.

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