What’s It Like To Visit A Ghost Town Full Of Toxic Waste? Welcome To Picher, Oklahoma…

church abandoned picher oklahoma ghost town

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 rental car on nearly all sides as I navigate a maze of narrow, one-way streets through what used to be the residential community of Picher, Oklahoma.

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.

picher main street
The main street of Picher, Oklahoma, which is now a toxic ghost town.

As recently as 2006, Picher 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 affected by lead contamination.

Everyone is gone now. Visiting this place now is freaky. I drove through Picher, Oklahoma on a road trip. Here’s what I saw.

us property no trespassing picher sinkhole

The History of Picher, Oklahoma Timeline: The 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, Oklahoma 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.

welcome church picher population

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, Kansas 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.

toxic chat piles - lead contamination

In 2000, the population of Picher, Oklahoma was 1640. In 2010, it was 20. Today, it’s zero. Such a dramatic change due to the mine issues and chat piles and lead contamination.

What’s it Like to Visit a Toxic Ghost Town?

Being in a ghost town that was abandoned so recently is strange. While passing through town, it was 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.

ghost town phone booth empty

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.

gorillas 1984 football state championship

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.

neighborhood watch ghost town - picher oklahoma documentary

“Keep Out!” is scrawled in spray paint across many of the properties, in an effort to keep ghost town tourists such as myself from entering the old buildings. And perhaps to keep away addicts. Yeah, that too.

Addicts and dealers evidently moved into some of the abandoned houses for awhile after the town was deserted.

keep out - history of picher oklahoma

“Surreal” is not a word I’ve used to describe many places, but it could not be more appropriate here. The lead contamination in Picher has led to a truly strange abandoned place.

More Photos from Picher, Oklahoma

The town’s water tower still stands tall behind a few abandoned business buildings.

picher water tower

Another building that is not only abandoned, but actually falling apart. You can see the roof crumbling:

abandoned house - can you visit picher today

A few signs of previous life. A “Sorry – closed sign” on a storefront, and a sweatshirt hanging on the other side of the door:

closed storefront lead contamination picher

This trailer is empty and no longer has doors or windows. I imagine the local bugs and small critters are now finding it to be a comfortable home.

trailer picher treece kansas

The most haunting building I found in Picher, OK was this Christian church. You can see it would’ve been a place where people worshiped for years, but now it has lost much of its paint and stands creepily near some trees with no leaves.

christian church abandoned

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.

UPDATE: The building that used to serve as the Picher Mining Museum burned in a fire and no longer exists. It had been on the National Register of Historic Places. The exhibits and archives had already been sent to other museums in the area after the Tar Creek Buyout, so no exhibits were lost.

picher mining museum oklahoma

The Mining Museum had stood for 88 years and was previously the Tri-State Zinc and Lead Ore Producers Association. After my visit to Picher, the roof of the museum had caved in, so it was only a matter of time before the structure was destroyed, in one way or another.

There has reportedly been at least one Picher documentary, possibly on Netflix, but I’m currently unable to find it. Shoot us a link if you discover any Picher documentaries worth sharing!

In the meantime, here’s a news report video about the history of Picher, Oklahoma:

Can You Visit Picher Today?

Yes, you can still visit the town, just as I did. As of the year 2023, some side roads are closed (due to chat and sinkholes) but the main road that runs through the community still exists and will still take you past town into Kansas.

There aren’t a lot of hotels in the vicinity, so Picher is probably best for road trips. You can pass through this strange ghost town and then keep moving onto your next destination.

The nearest major cities to Picher are Tulsa, Oklahoma (97 miles away / 1.5 hour drive) and Springfield, Missouri (94 miles away / 1.5 hour drive.)

Where should you stay if you want to visit the toxic ghost town? The closest hotel in a nearby small towns is the Baxter Inn in Baxter Springs, KS (7 miles away.) I stayed at the Hampton Inn in Miami, Oklahoma (9 miles away.)

Ghost town of Picher, Oklahoma

63 thoughts on “What’s It Like To Visit A Ghost Town Full Of Toxic Waste? Welcome To Picher, Oklahoma…”

  1. Drove through this town on the way to Kansas. Was so intrigued by the abandoned / dilapidated buildings, the chat piles, the overall eeriness, that we had to google about it and see what was up. When we drove back home, we slowly drove through to take a closer look. Would be a great site for a horror flick – if it weren’t an EPA superfund site.

    1. There are many abandoned subsurface natural and manmade caves, mines, etc. some of which are subject to subsidence or even just exist as holes in the ground. Google “Lava tubes hawaii missing persons.”
      Picher is a sometimes speed trap. That is to say it remains a thoroughfare in a fairly rural area.

  2. Any info on when we ( government) gave properties back to the Indian Tribe and what they have planned to do with property?

  3. My father was born to Walter William Herd and Margaret Herd / Justice July 9th 1923 in Picher Oklahoma. My grandfather worked in the mines until he had to sell out. I have always wanted to go to Oklahoma to see where he was born but Im sure that is all gone.

    1. Wow I think your Grandmother is my Grandfather’s Sister, John Justice. His father was Elijah Hamilton Justice and his mother was Mary Susan (Ames) Justice. My mother was born in Picher in 1929 they moved to CA around 1930. She had 3 brothers all born in CA, George, William (Bill) and Robert (Bob)

  4. I too am intrigued by these photos. My Great Grandparents lived in Picher and raised their family during the 40’s. My Great Grandfather Aaron Stankewitz worked in the mines and developed TB in later years and died in Sebastian County in Fort Smith, AR. My Grandmother, Celia Nell Stankewitz contracted bone marrow cancer and had her leg amputated at the age of 15 after living in Picher, OK.

    1. My father lives on the Kansas side, North of Treece, Kansas, just a couple of miles.
      I drive thru Picher, on the main highway that divides the town.
      Treece is at the North West edge of Pitcher.
      Just a mile of so past Treece, the chat piles disappear from sight, and Kansas farm land fills the horizon.
      My father is 92. Last month we took a slow cruise thru the area, just for old time sake. We drove south thru the town of Treece, thru Picher, on to Commerce, then Miami, and as we drive, we talked about my Dads’ memories of the booming mining days of the past. My fathers’ father, my grandfather, owned a mining repair company in Commerce. My father grew up there, and so did I, until I was 12.
      My Dad tells me that my grandfather invented a table that was used to separate the smaller chat from the larger pieces. It had a screen in it, to sort the chat. My Dad worked in the mines, and hauled the massive mining equipment parts to and from my grandfathers’ repair shop, on a huge flatbed truck.
      My grandfather would send one of his workers to get me a little sack lunch from a Commerce restaurant, every day, and it always contained some candy for an even more special treat.
      My Dad told me about the miners who suffered from ‘Black Lung’, from the dust in the mines. It was a draining, lingering way to die. Their lungs filled with dust from the miles, weakening them and causing an early death. Back then, there was no disability payment program for people who were to ill to work. One of my little friends’ father had Black Lung, from working in the mines, and they were very poor, because her father could no longer work. He was thin and frail, I remember.
      My mother told me that when I visited their house, never to accept food from them even if they offered, because they were very poor, and they didn’t have enough for themselves.
      They are removing the chat piles in Picher and Cardin where we played, when I was young, swam, and where brothers and sons rode 4 wheelers years later.
      People from that area were called ‘chat rats’ by the young people. They were just a place to play, (when they were stable, and not caving in!).
      Picher certainly is a ghost town now. There is little trace of the ‘boom town’ that it used to be, serving the country, furthering the war effort making ammunition. A generation ago, my family was a part of that thriving community.
      Janiece Hemphill-Gaither

  5. Cool post! I know people who have worked on the Tar Creek Superfund site near here (I work for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, and they work for our sister agency, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality) and I remember learning about Picher in one of my environmental classes at the University of Oklahoma.

  6. My grandmother was born in Picher, Oklahoma. Her father was a miner who resided on Netta Street. He passed away at an early age do to Tuberculosis. My great grandmother passed away from the same complications only 3 years later. My grandmother was orphaned and sent to live in the Tipton Orphanage until her eldest sister came to get her when grandma was 10. This happened in the 1930s-1940s. The mines affected lives throughout it’s entire history. In reply to Karen Innocenti’s July 19, 2015 post regarding the “old story” her Uncle used to tell her about a mine so big a drump truck could drive through it, I heard the same story growing up. I cry every time I read this article. It notes on the fact that the lead and zinc were used to supply both world wars, but it does not relate to the feeling of duty amongst the men who mined those shafts. If a person; like myself, are doing genealogical research of ancestors who resided within this community you might find that there were many veterans who had endured their lives as draftees. Some of these men were responsible adversaries in the Day of Armistice. They knew men who gave their lives to rescue strangers far away from home, and they knew what it meant to give their lives to supply resources to their fellow comrades. Visiting Picher as a child I remember it far differently and rather similarly as Scott Shelter’s article depicts. I walked the floors and viewed the artifacts of the Picher Mining Museum in the 1990s. I could see the marvelous ore that each miner had an opportunity to handle, I seen the devastation of SOME of the roads, that now map out the underground roads and entrances the miners once traveled. The concept of the “toxic waste dump” that is declared in this article is depressing. I visited this town on more than one occasion and remember the green foliage that is now depicted as colorless.

  7. There are two documentaries about Pitcher on Amazon. One is called “Tar Creek”. It’s free if you have prime. The other one is called “The Creek Runs Red” and it’s $2.99.

    1. Also a clip talks about the chat piles seen from above in a show called ‘What on Earth’. It originally aired on April 20, 2020

  8. This is very interesting. I love ghost towns. Might have to take a road trip. Thanks for the pix. They are beautifully haunting. Not that trespassing isn’t illegal, but i would def want to go through the buildings. :/

  9. I wondered the same thing Karen about the roads and stuff. We went there in October 2016 not much left. we saw a couple of abounded building. a housing area that looked like it was duplexes a lot of them were unlivable there was one though that looked fine and had a truck outside of it. a church right outside of Picher maybe part of the town I don’t know it was white right on route 66. we drove down side roads and didn’t feel in danger. yes there was very large chat hills and it did stink. we stopped and talked to two young men and a child fishing and saw one other man in a truck on a side road. the school was still there but couldn’t go down the road to it. I was saddened to see a once booming town come to this and for the people that had to leave that called Picher home. I do believe there is some remaining residents as we saw and talked to some people on side roads and they didn’t tell us to leave town they were nice to us but we didn’t try to make them talk about the town. If their is any remaining residents God Bless you and keep you safe

    1. You seem to have missed a very important contributing factor to what led to Picher becoming a ghost town. The final nail in the coffin didn’t come from lead, a government buy off or anything like that. It was a tornado. Late in the night some time around 2009-2010, a tornado slammed through Picher and destroyed homes, roads and businesses. I know because I was one of the National Guard soldiers called to the scene. I remember standing guard on those same streets and having to turn people away from their own homes because of damage and ongoing search and rescue efforts. Yes, the toxicity is and was a major contributor to the town’s fall. The nearly predatory weather of the quad states gave the death blow.

  10. Karen Innocenti

    I grew up in Picher, and miss home every day. I just wanted to give my answer to the questions posted by Carly Adams. The land in Picher was turned back over to the Quapaw Indian tribe, they were the original settlers in that area. After the residents that chose the buyout were gone and the houses removed they were given back the land, the school building was blocked off by them, I am not sure what it is used for. Also, it was said earlier that “police run people off”, it’s not because there is anything secret going on. It is to keep unnecessary vandalism and nonsense like that from going on. There are still people that live there, it was their choice to stay, I sometimes wish I could move back home, it was a great place to grow up. I don’t know all the answers to the whole situation, but I have my opinion, I feel that there were some health issues brought on by the exposure to the lead. I just don’t believe that every person that has ever lived in Picher has these issues. As far as the roads “falling/caving in”, there is a chance of cave in but not anything like the way you described it. Hell for that matter, if that was true, you had better be careful driving around the nearby towns of Commerce, OK., Quapaw, OK. and as far away as Joplin, Carthage, Galena, and Riverton, in Kansas. All of those areas were active in the same mining that took place back in the day, along with Picher. I have always heard the old story, from my Uncle, that there was a place around Commerce, where you could drive a dump truck under the ground into the tunnel that lead from there all the way under ground to Joplin, Mo. So, in the end, if Picher had big troubles, then why not those areas also?

  11. I just visited picher OK and the surrounding towns, I was just wondering if anyone can tell me why the school is blocked off by police, it was almost like they were hiding something there?

  12. Just drove thru this town tonight when we had missed our exit. It is very erie. I would love to hear more of this story. I remember hearing of the buyouts an of the tornado and I remember when my brother told us he could not go to picher an ride his four wheelers on the chat piles anymore. Very interesting to drive thru here today, I had never been to pic her before. My question is, what is the large acres of newly worked land that appears like a new development coming soon just north of picher?

      1. I drive an end dump semi tractor trailer and am there guite often because of the two major quarries there Several types of chat rock and sand are hauled out of there by the thousands of tons everyday for the concrete and asphalt industry all over the country However none of it is allowed to be used in drive ways or anywhere where there would be direct contact . You must have visited there in the winter because the trees and foliage are very green and thriving just like anywhere else. Although an interesting article

  13. People “touring” Picher may have been “harassed” by police because contrary to your report there are people who still live here. My son grew up here. He is not mentally challenged due to exposure to lead. He graduated from high school and is now serving our nation in the Army. I had to comment on this article because I’m tired of people who don’t know anything about what happened here writing articles about it. You read something on the internet ( and we all know that you can’t lie on the internet ) and decided you had all the facts. Please do more research before you post your “facts”.

    1. If there’s anything you believe is inaccurate, feel free to point it out. Even if a handful of people remain (no more than six households, according to your own estimate), that does not substantively change the story.

    2. Why is your town blocked off then? Are you guys allowed to come and go as you please? Why isn’t anyone else? And, for those that had never of heard of this in the news, three letters: NPR. Might be worth breaking away from Entertainment Tonight for a minute or two…

      1. Debra L Sexton

        DANG, Dude! “Might be worth breaking away from “Entertainment Tonight for a minute or two…? What? Like anyone from Picher…or surrounding areas, for that matter is unaware of publicly funded broadcasting? Hate to point this out, son…but “NPR” didn’t chime in on this story for a full 25 years AFTER the town was declared a Superfund site. Im a card carrying Democratic Southern California native…so, please…spare me the liberal rancor. And, if I had to make an uneducated guess along the same fissures you applied, I’d guess the town is walled off to outsiders for their own protection. Wouldn’t want to come across the likes of you or me at the bottom of one of those collapsed mine shafts rumored full of the long lost bones of us “PBS” types. I’ve got three letters for you as well…BBC…that is if you can “break away” from the mirror for “…a minute or two…”

    1. Yeah, the scenery is wild. Fyi, I hear the local authorities aren’t too keen on visitors wandering around Picher. I was in and out fairly quickly but I’ve read stories of other folks being harassed by police.

  14. Fascinating story. I heard of places being wracked around the Arctic circle because of the search for resources, didn’t know it happens in places like Oklahoma – though I’m not surprised. It’s frightening that the government is aware of dangers and lets people continue living there, hoping for the best. I mean, even if they think the land can be healed and are working toward that – find a solution for your residents first.

    1. The most disturbing part of the story was the government agencies constantly reassuring residents that it was fine to live there up until 2006. It’s not good when you can’t trust those responsible for protecting you.

  15. This is so creepy! And sad. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this town. I think I’d feel like I was in the opening scenes of a horror movie if I was wandering around there alone.

    1. I only heard of this town by some fluke a while back when I was looking up ghost towns. I kept the page bookmarked because I told myself if I ever visited Oklahoma, I had to see this place. It definitely was creepy being there!

  16. i am mildly obsessed with ghost towns for this very reason. So haunting and beautiful and desperately sad. Great story.

  17. Yikes… reminds me of that town in… I want to say PA? That has the mines under it burning forever… Nice job. Glad you found me on Twitter!

      1. I think that the town that Amy is talking about is Centralia, in Pennsylvania. I’d love to visit it, and other ghost towns, but not much chance of that because I live in the UK.

  18. Fascinating! I love that first picture. It’s haunting.

    I drove through some towns in Alabama that were basically ghost towns due to the recession. Grocery stores and gas stations closed up shop. Every building on Main Street shuttered. It was surreal, just as you describe this, though I think people still love there. There just isn’t any business in town any more.

    I don’t think I would have had the nerve to cross the No Trespassing signs, but I;m glad you did. So interesting.

  19. Once more, you give us another place to visit! I love ghost towns- Bodie, CA being my favorite. I have relatives in OK- I now have another reason to visit:-) thank you

      1. I look forward to seeing and hearing about those future ghost towns.

        Maybe you should check out Hinckley, CA? I don’t know if it’s a ghost town or not.
        (Loved the movie, Erin Brockovich, of course.)

      2. I actually grew up in picher/Cardin, it was toxic even back then, we just didn’t know it. I suffer from many health issues I’m sure were caused by those living conditions. The government only got involved when it could no longer hide how unhealthy it was to live there.

  20. Wow… this was very interesting. Crazy the things we NEVER hear about on the news. I mean this happened like YESTERDAY… WTF???

    I’m still sitting here thinking what else is going on in the USA that we don’t know? I hope these people got a good amount of money at least.

    Your photos are great… they look like from a movie of the end of the world. They look so scary.

    1. Yeah I hadn’t heard about this town until I stumbled across the wikipedia page while researching ghost towns. The most disturbing part is how the EPA let these people live there for decades even after they realized the area was hazardous.

      1. I have news for you.I live in Picher and have lived there since 2007,My mom has lived there since 2001.So please don’t tell lies of everybody got a government check for leaving.And we haven’t abandoned Picher either.

        1. Nathan since you live there why don’t you tell us about it? I understand your aggravation if misinformation is being shared but throwing one liners and teasers doesn’t help with educating others. I’m from Coweta, OK and have only heard the city name, none of the things revealed in this article. My only question is given the scientific proof of the danger, why do you choose to live there? Respectfully, it seems you’re giving the EPA the finger only to self-harm, thus creating need for more funds to treat you and your family if, God forbid, you fall ill. There are some BEAUTIFUL places to live in OK. Maybe you should take a drive, expand your mind and your future.

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