As recently as 2006, Picher, Oklahoma was a typical little American community. Now it’s a toxic ghost town.
The GPS urges me to continue going straight ahead, but I’m unable to oblige, thanks to a wire fence blocking the road and a daunting sign reading, “U.S. PROPERTY, NO TRESPASSING.” Huge rock piles, some as tall as 200 feet, surround my car on nearly all sides as I navigate a maze of narrow, one-way streets through what used to be a residential community.
The rock piles behind the fences are not merely rocks. They’re chat, a toxic mixture of stone, lead and iron, the remnants of decades of mining expeditions. The chat piles are scattered throughout the area and the toxic dust blows in the wind, carrying the hazardous material along with it.
Fortunately, it’s not a particularly windy day, so I (perhaps naively) don’t fear for my own health. I’m not even aware that the ground I’m standing on is extraordinarily unstable and could collapse at any moment. As I look around at the abandoned buildings and observe what’s left of this place, I’m in awe of the shockingly swift decline of the community.
As recently as 2006, Picher, Oklahoma was a normal American small town, with more than 1,000 residents and a school district of 340 students. Just three years later, every resident had received a buyout check from the federal government, along with a warning that they’d better high tail it out of town ASAP because Picher was a toxic dump.
Everyone is gone now. Visiting this place in the year 2013 is freaky.
Picher’s rise and toxic fall
Ghost towns can be fun, especially places like Rhyolite, Nevada, which was abandoned nearly a century ago and has become somewhat of a tourist attraction. But Picher’s story is far different. The town was founded in 1913 after workers drilling a hole accidentally discovered lead and zinc. A mining company set up shop, bringing to the region thousands of workers who established Picher and the nearby town of Treece, Kansas. The area became a mining mecca, producing most of the metal for the ammunition used in the two World Wars.
As the decades wore on, the mining stopped, but the ground became extremely unstable. Mine shafts would occasionally collapse, sometimes sucking in entire houses or cars. A 2006 report by the Army Corps of Engineers revealed that much of Picher was facing major sinkhole danger due to mine subsidence. An earlier study had revealed that 34% of children in Picher had elevated levels of lead in their systems, resulting in the potential for brain damage, so Picher was not exactly topping any “most livable cities” lists. The government finally shut down the town and offered buyouts for its citizens to begin life anew elsewhere. Most locals were ready to leave, and a majority of those who were still undecided moved on after a 2008 tornado that further devastated the community.
(Odd footnote: The poor residents of Treece didn’t get their buyouts when Picher did. The Oklahoma-Kansas border is a dividing line between Environmental Protection Agency jurisdictions, and the EPA folks on the Kansas side still believed the land could be saved. So despite the pleas of locals, the EPA initially tried to convince the Treece peeps that their town was safe and that the soil could be cleaned up within 10 years. Finally, in 2010, after a rare bipartisan act of Congress, Treece residents were offered buyouts as well, which nearly all of them accepted.)
What’s it like to visit a toxic ghost town?
Being in a ghost town that was abandoned so recently is strange. It’s odd to see the Picher Youth Soccer sign and realize that just a few years back, kids were playing games on this field – a field that is one of the most unstable parts of the entire town, according to that Army Corps study.
While the chat piles are fenced off, the rest of the town is still publicly accessible. Ignorant of the unstable ground on which I’m driving, I cover just about every inch of the small community’s roads, checking out the old Christian church, the water tower, a housing complex, an empty phone booth. There’s absolutely no one else on these side streets, though several Kansas-bound cars do zip past on Route 69, which runs through the heart of what used to be Picher’s business district. Most of the homes are long gone, but a few remain as hollow shells.
There’s very little color left. Everything is brown and gray, just dead foliage and concrete roads and parking lots. Leafless trees and dry weeds have taken over the landscape. The only splash of color is the bright red base of the giant gorilla mascot, which informs me that the Picher Gorillas captured the state football championship in 1984. A modern “Neighborhood Watch” sign stands hopelessly next to an abandoned, broken-down dwelling, while a “Drug-Free America” post survives next to the drug store. Another sign points the way to the nonexistent First Baptist Church, which was torn down in 2011.
“Keep Out!” is scrawled in spray paint across most of the properties, in an effort to keep ghost town tourists such as myself from entering the old buildings. And perhaps to keep away meth heads. Yeah, that too. Meth dealers evidently moved into some of the abandoned houses for awhile after the town was deserted.
“Surreal” is not a word I’ve used to describe many places, but it could not be more appropriate here.
Photos from Picher, Oklahoma
The main road leading out of Picher remains a highly-traveled artery connecting Oklahoma to Kansas. There, the building that housed the Picher Mining Museum remains intact, serving as a reminder of the industry that both created and destroyed the town.