Located in Ottawa County just off Route 66, Picher, Oklahoma, was once a thriving mine town, a hub for lead and zinc operations. Unfortunately, the thing that gave the town its life would also be what brought it down, as Picher is now filled with poisonous materials and unstable ground. 

Picher’s story begins in the early 20th century. The discovery of lead and zinc in the area brought in a booming population of miners and other workers, and Picher’s population peaked at over 14,000 in 1926. The timing of this mining was crucial, as Picher was a key supplier of materials for both World Wars.

National Archives and Records Administration

 As with many industries at the time, the mining operations were unsafe and put everyone in the town at risk. Methods for extracting ore from the ground resulted in huge mounds of waste colloquially known as chat. Mounds of chat became sort of a staple of the city, giant hills of unearthed materials were common, and no one thought that they were potentially hazardous. On the contrary, they were signs of prosperity. More chat meant more mining, which meant more money. Kids would climb or bike up chat piles, and residents of Picher would even fill sandboxes with chat.

It would later be discovered that 63% of children in Picher suffered from lead poisoning. This was due to frequent exposure to the chat as well as unclean drinking water that also resulted from the mining operations. Health problems faced by those who grew up in the town included lung issues and developmental disabilities. 

By the 1980s, the mining operations had ceased, and the population (quite literally) died down. Also, at this time, the EPA began the Superfund program, which was designed to clean highly hazardous areas like Picher. Acts were taken to close off toxic areas and give the residents access to safe water.  

But, by the early 2000s, it was clear that efforts taken would not be enough to save the town. In addition to the toxicity present throughout Picher, the Army Corps of Engineers would later determine that a significant portion of Picher was at risk of caving in due to the mines below. 

When it rains, it pours, and rain in Picher was probably somehow poisonous. In 2008, an EF-4 tornado disrupted life in the already troubled town. The storm destroyed 114 homes and effectively marked the official beginning of the end for the town. 

FEMA

Nothing was rebuilt, and the town’s schools, police, and other city services shut down within a year. After a few smaller rounds of government buyouts previously, the EPA offered buyouts for the entire town. Almost everyone took them.

Almost everyone. Today, Picher is a ghost town. Buildings sit abandoned, and the path of the 2008 tornado’s damage can still be seen. Despite this, there are still a few who still live in or near the post-apocalyptic town. The exact number of the current population vary, but it is likely in the low double digits.

Toxic and always on the verge of literal collapse, Picher, Oklahoma is a cautionary relic. It stands as a warning against getting too big too quickly without considering potential consequences. As the long-term nuclear warnings say, “This is not a place of honor.”

Top Image: Tim Dowd/Wiki Commons

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