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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.

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."

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.

"The land from Rocky Flats slopes east," says Paul Davis. "The groundwater doesn't run this way."

Of more importance to the little town was a dramatic plan to put the former coal mine to a new use. Public Service Company bought up rights to the abandoned mine in the mid-1950s and announced plans to convert it into a major storage facility for natural gas. By 1959 the utility company had begun work on the project.

The mine today can store up to 3 billion cubic feet of natural gas and is an important part of metro Denver's energy supply. A large pumping facility is located just across the road from Leyden, and monitoring stations dot the hillsides between the town and highway 93. The presence of so much natural gas just across the street from the town means that most of the land on the west side of Leyden can't be developed. Residents say they've learned to live with the gas mine. But the relationship has at times been a tenuous one.

The utility company has acknowledged that gas has leaked from the mine over the years, though it denies any public health hazard. However, last week a landowner sued the PUC, claiming that leaking gas had contaminated his land north of the storage facility, creating a risk of explosion. And the presence of the gas facility has had other adverse effects on the town's ability to grow.

Like many cities in the arid West, Leyden struggled for years to find a dependable water supply. The first residents to buy homes after the coal mine shut down hauled water from a single tap that flowed from a spring on a nearby hill. The Davises remember carrying two- and three-gallon buckets of water back to their house in the 1950s. That supply was never adequate, and two tragic fires highlighted the dangers posed by the limited supply of water. A blaze in 1952 killed two-year-old twins, and another fire in 1954 killed a two-year-old girl and her two-month-old sister. Leyden's residents decided they'd had enough. They voted 33-9 to create a water district charged with digging a community well.

Unfortunately for Leyden, the water from the new well was so contaminated with cattle droppings that massive amounts of chlorine had to be added to make it drinkable. The water was more heavily chlorinated than many swimming pools; some residents compared it to drinking diluted Clorox bleach.

The state health department frequently checked the town's water supply. By 1969 the community well had started to cave in, and the health department was so concerned about Leyden's water that it began taking samples three times a week. Several mothers in town believed the strong chemicals in the water were making their children ill, and they contacted an Arvada attorney and asked him to help the water district find an alternate supply.

A natural solution would have been to dig a deeper well, but the residents couldn't dig deeper because of the natural-gas facility. The coal-mine shafts stretch for hundreds of feet in all directions around Leyden, and Public Service feared residents might accidentally tap into its highly pressurized natural-gas supply, potentially touching off a huge explosion. "I had to sign a paper that said if I dug a well I couldn't go below fifty feet," says Davis.

The situation looked desperate, and some feared Leyden would have to be abandoned a second time. That's when Leyden's water board appealed to Arvada for permission to link up with the burgeoning suburb's water system. Arvada approved a temporary deal to supply water to Leyden in 1970. However, when the city ran its high pressure water into Leyden's jerry-built patchwork of pipes, many of them came apart at the seams. While trying to fix the pipes, engineers discovered that some sections of the town's water pipes were so old that they had disintegrated, and the water was running through hollowed-out dirt.

Arvada extended its emergency agreement to supply Leyden with water through March 1, 1973, but told the townspeople it wouldn't supply Leyden with water after that unless the town came up with $48,000 to replace the water pipes. Applications were made to several federal agencies but were turned down, and it looked like Leyden's luck had run out. At the last minute, Colorado Governor John Love gave the town most of the funding it needed from the state's emergency budget.

The infusion of funds saved Leyden. But the agreement with Arvada also put the little town squarely in the crosshairs of its larger neighbor's expansion plans. Once miles away, the Arvada city limit is now little more than a mile from Leyden, which is in unincorporated Jefferson County. And Arvada, which seems to aspire to becoming the Aurora of the metro area's west side, has annexed land on the north and south sides of Leyden all the way to highway 93.

Arvada officials make it clear that they have their eye on Leyden, which is within the growth limits of the suburb's comprehensive plan. "There are no plans now to annex it," says Arvada planning director Mike Elms. "But if our growth limits ever build out, Leyden could eventually be in Arvada."

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.

"Before they modernized, it was really in the boonies," says Annie Davis. "Arvada was nine miles away, and we always shopped in old Arvada before everything built up. There were only two or three farmhouses from Quaker over to 64th, and most people had horses."

The coal mine was already closed when the Davises arrived, but there were many reminders of the role coal played in Leyden's history. Crumbling buildings left over from mining operations dotted the hillsides, and Paul Davis still remembers the day one of the coal seams caught fire.

"I went over to try to put it out," he recalls. "They had fire trucks come." Nobody seemed to be able to extinguish the blaze, however. The fire continued to smolder for days, and townspeople stood watch to sound the alert should the wind change. Finally, remembers Davis, somebody came up with a solution to stamp out the stubborn blaze, which by then had assumed a life of its own: They paved it over with concrete.

Like the fire, Leyden has shown a remarkable ability to survive against the odds. But its residents know the once-remote place they love is destined to change.

Frank Pacheco, who built most of his house himself, stands in his garage and worries about the new faces he sees whizzing through town on their way to the new subdivisions. "Someday they'll come and buy this town out," he says. "People with money can do anything they want.

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