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Down in the Hole

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

Lois Lindstrom stumbled across Leyden almost by accident. Active in preserving Arvada's history, the retired schoolteacher in early 1995 discovered a tiny two-room wooden chapel on the old Boyd Ranch near Ralston Road and Quaker Street. That ranch is now being developed as part of the West Woods subdivision, and Lindstrom set out to save the chapel. It was only afterward that she learned it was the old Leyden chapel, which had been moved to the ranch in 1925.

The chapel was the coalminers' only place of worship in the years after Leyden was founded. Lindstrom has a vintage photograph from 1906 showing the miners' families dressed in their Sunday best for the building's dedication. "The chapel was a mission of the Central Presbyterian Church," she says. The downtown Denver congregation remodeled the building and offered religious and other services to the struggling families. "They realized how harsh the conditions were," Lindstrom says. "There was nothing in the way of culture for the people who lived there, so they established a reading room."

Little is known about the early history of Leyden other than that life was hard. More than 100 miners worked the coal shafts, producing as much as 2,000 tons of coal per day. The men worked long hours in dangerous conditions, inside a mine filled with groundwater. In 1910, a fire in the mine killed ten of those workers.

"The working conditions were terrible," says Lindstrom. "We forget that people had to live that way."

Lindstrom is now trying to raise $20,000 to renovate the old Leyden chapel in its current location. The Presbytery of Denver, a council of local Presbyterian churches, has pledged $1,000 to help. Lindstrom says she'd prefer to move the chapel back to Leyden, but since there's no city government there to take responsibility for it, she doesn't expect that to happen.

Other construction projects have proceeded more easily in the area around Leyden. Just up the hill from the town, the short-grass prairie of the foothills is being transformed into a fantasy version of home on the range. Huge five- or six-bedroom houses, many selling for more than $500,000, are being offered on acre lots with room for a horse corral. Busy executives can drive to their new homes in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, relax in air-conditioned sunrooms and look out at the Appaloosa in the backyard.

Fifty homes are now planned for a development just off Quaker Street that's called Summertree Lane. And real estate agents say there is strong interest in the area just east of Leyden. "It's a very vibrant and growing area," says Ed Tomlinson of Remax West. "The homes on the outskirts of Leyden start at $200,000, and some go as high as $600,000. It appeals to people looking for a somewhat rural environment. I see the future as bright for more construction east of Leyden."

Development seems inevitable on the north and south sides of Leyden as well. Much of that land is part of the controversial Jefferson Center development, which calls for 18,000 acres of new homes, offices and shopping centers stretching all the way to state highway 93. Jefferson Center includes land in the former Rocky Flats Industrial Park along state highway 72, where several oil and chemical companies left so much toxic waste that the Environmental Protection Agency is considering making the area a Superfund site. And a few miles to the north, Rocky Flats still stores enough plutonium to kill everyone in Colorado several times over. The federal government has begun a long-delayed cleanup of the old nuclear-weapons plant, but it will likely be decades before the job is finished. Just last week the plant went on emergency alert when workers backed a piece of heavy equipment over a metal drum contaminated with uranium.

None of this seems to faze those looking for a romantic piece of the Old West, especially if it comes with a three-car garage. "The real estate developers come by and say, 'Do you want to sell your house?'" says Paul Davis. "They could buy these homes for $40,000 to $50,000, tear them down and build bigger houses." Davis and other residents shake their heads at the prospect.

"Those aren't houses, they're palaces," says Lawrence Sandusky of the new developments over the hill. "I live on Social Security. I wouldn't even be able to pay the taxes on them."

Leyden probably will not actually see construction of megahouses like those up the hill. The old creek that runs along the south side of town only flows for part of the year, but because of it, most of Leyden is in a flood plain. That means that, under Jefferson County regulations, any new development must be approved by the county engineer.

However, the town could certainly support homes larger than the matchbox relics it has now. And the remaining residents are determined to preserve the town's smaller scale. "People aren't going to turn these houses loose," says Paul Davis. "Nobody is going to sell. I'm not selling."

Davis is retired now, but he supplements his income by refurbishing antique fishing rods and building birdhouses in a workshop in the back of his garage. The Davises still remember the remote lifestyle Leyden offered in the 1950s.

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