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  • Writer's pictureLucian@going2paris.net

Picher, Oklahoma


Big Cabin, Oklahoma

October 24, 2022


Surreal. Probably not as much as Cairo, Illinois and the Salton Sea but still an amazingly eerie place. With most of the buildings demolished it is hard to envision what the town looked like. The school buildings are still standing -- not sure why that is.


There are various YouTube videos about Picher. Most of them focus on the abandoned buildings which makes it appear that the residents left in a hurry. From what I have read, that was not the case.


Interestingly, I cannot find any reports of ongoing studies of the effects of the lead poisoning on the residents, especially the kids. I wonder if such studies are being done in Flint, Michigan.


I thought shooting photos in B&W was appropriate. I left in color those photos that are more in the present. The music is not meant to be funny, but appropriate.


From Wikipedia:


Picher is a ghost town and former city in Ottawa County, northeastern Oklahoma. It was a major national center of lead and zinc mining for more than 100 years in the heart of the Tri-State Mining District.


The decades of unrestricted subsurface excavation dangerously undermined most of Picher's town buildings and left giant piles of toxic metal-contaminated mine tailings (known as chat) heaped throughout the area. The discovery of the cave-in risks, groundwater contamination, and health effects associated with the chat piles (children playing on the piles and putting it in their sandboxes, as they did not know the toxic danger) and subsurface shafts resulted in the site being included in 1980 in the Tar Creek Superfund Site by the US Environmental Protection Agency.


The state collaborated on mitigation and remediation measures, but a 1994 screening result found that 34% of the children in Picher suffered from lead poisoning due to these environmental effects. This can result in lifelong neurological problems. Eventually the EPA and the state of Oklahoma agreed to a mandatory evacuation and buyout of the entire township. The similarly contaminated satellite towns of Treece, Kansas, and Cardin, Oklahoma, were included in the Tar Creek Superfund site.


A 2006 Army Corps of Engineers study showed 86% of Picher's buildings (including the town school) were badly undermined and subject to collapse at any time. The destruction in May 2008 of 150 homes by an EF4 tornado accelerated the exodus of the remaining population.


On September 1, 2009, the state of Oklahoma officially dis-incorporated the city of Picher, which ceased official operations on that day. The population plummeted from 1,640 at the 2000 census to 20 at the 2010 census. The federal government proceeded to conduct buyouts of remaining properties. As of January 2011, six homes and one business remained, their owners having refused to leave at any price. Except for some historic structures, the rest of the town's buildings were scheduled to be demolished by the end of the year. One of the last vacant buildings, which had housed the former Picher mining museum, was destroyed by arson in April 2015. However, its historical archives and artifacts had already been shipped to the Dobson Museum in Miami, Oklahoma by that point.


Picher is among a small number of locations in the world (such as Gilman, Colorado; Centralia, Pennsylvania; and Wittenoom, Western Australia) to be evacuated and declared uninhabitable due to environmental and health damage caused by area mines.


The closest towns to Picher, other than nearby Cardin, Treece, and Douthat, are Commerce, Quapaw (the headquarters of the federally recognized Native American nation by that name), and Miami, Oklahoma.


History


In 1913, as the Tri-State district expanded, lead and zinc ore were discovered on Harry Crawfish's claim, and mining began. A townsite developed overnight around the new workings and was named Picher in honor of O. S. Picher, owner of Picher Lead Company. The city was incorporated in 1918, and by 1920, Picher had a population of 9,726. Peak population occurred in 1926 with 14,252 residents and was followed by a gradual decline due to the decrease in mining activity, leaving Picher with only 2,553 by 1960.


The Picher area became the most productive lead-zinc mining field in the Tri-State district, producing over $20 billion worth of ore between 1917 and 1947. More than fifty percent of the lead and zinc used during World War I was extracted from the Picher district. At its peak more than 14,000 miners worked the mines and another 4,000 worked in mining services. Many workers commuted by an extensive trolley system from as far away as Joplin and Carthage, Missouri.


Mining ceased in 1967 and water pumping from the mines ceased. The contaminated water from some 14,000 abandoned mine shafts, 70 million tons of mine tailings, and 36 million tons of mill sand and sludge remained as a huge environmental cleanup problem. As a result of national legislation to identify and remediate such environmentally hazardous sites, in 1983 the area was designated as part of the Tar Creek Superfund site. In 1994, Indian Health Service test results concerning the blood lead levels of Indian children living on the Site indicated that approximately 35 percent of the children tested had concentrations of lead in their blood exceeding 10 micrograms per deciliter, the level of lead in the blood the Centers for Disease Control considers to be a health concern. In August 1994, to address the threat of lead exposure to children, EPA began sampling soils at high-access areas (HAA), such as day cares, schoolyards, and other areas where children congregate. The sampling detected significant concentrations of lead, cadmium, and other heavy metals in surface soils.


While some remediation took place in the following quarter century, contamination and other environmental hazards were found to be so severe that the government decided to close Picher and relocate its residents, as reported on April 24, 2006, by Reuters. Due in large part to the removal of large amounts of subsurface material during mining operations, many of the city's structures have been deemed in imminent danger of caving in.


Tornado


On May 10, 2008, Picher was struck by an EF4 tornado. There were eight confirmed deaths, possibly including one child, and many other people injured. The tornado first touched down near the Kansas–Oklahoma border in Oklahoma southwest of Chetopa, Kansas, and tracked eastward. It struck Picher, causing extensive damage to 20 blocks of the city, with houses and businesses destroyed or flattened. The damage in Picher was rated EF4. At least 150 people were injured in Picher alone. The tornado continued eastward, passing just north of Quapaw and Peoria before crossing Interstate 44 into Missouri. Given the existing plan to vacate the city, the federal government decided against aid to rebuild homes, and the buyouts continued as previously scheduled, with people being assisted in relocation.


Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry sent National Guard troops as well as emergency personnel to assist the hardest hit area in Picher. Loss of power from the tornado forced the city to go on a boiled water notice. Staff from the Oklahoma Rural Water Association arrived to assist, since the utility's testing equipment was destroyed by the storm. With an emergency generator to supply power, rural water staff had the system running normally only two days after the tornado struck.


Closure


In April 2009, residents voted 55–6 to dissolve the Picher-Cardin school district; it graduated its final class of 11 in May. By 2009 the district's enrollment had dropped to a total of 49 students from approximately 343 students years prior. Remaining students were assigned to attend Commerce and Quapaw school districts.


The city's post office was scheduled to close in July 2009, and the city ceased operations as a municipality on September 1, 2009. By June 29, 2009, all of the residents had been given federal checks to enable them to relocate from Picher permanently. The city is considered to be too toxic to be habitable. On the last day, all the final residents met at the school auditorium to say goodbye. As of November 2010, it was reported that Picher still had "one business and six occupied houses."


The government carried out a similar relocation program for residents of the adjacent city of Treece, Kansas. On October 29, 2009, Congress voted to allow the EPA to fund the relocation of the remaining citizens of Treece.


Starting in January 2011, almost all remaining commercial structures were scheduled to be demolished. Gary Linderman, owner of the Old Miner's Pharmacy, said he would stay until the last resident left. By March 2014, standing abandoned buildings included the Picher-Cardin High School building, a Christian church, the mining museum, and a handful of mercantile buildings, as well as numerous abandoned houses.


The municipality of Picher was officially dissolved on November 26, 2013.


The Picher Mining Field Museum, which had been housed in the former Tri-State Zinc and Lead Ore Producers Association building, was destroyed by arson in April 2015. The museum archives had previously been sent to Pittsburg State University, and other artifacts had been sent to the Baxter Springs, Kansas Heritage Center and Museum. In March 2017 the often-photographed Christian church, which was originally a one-room schoolhouse, was also destroyed by fire.


Gary Linderman, owner of the Ole Miner Pharmacy, was featured in the May 28, 2007, issue of People magazine in the Heroes Among Us article: "Prescription for Kindness". He vowed to stay as long as there was anyone left who needed him and to be the last one out of the city. He died on June 9, 2015, at the age of 60 from a sudden illness.


Meanwhile, the cleanup continues. On September 17, 2019, the EPA, in cooperation with the state of Oklahoma and the Quapaw Nation, released the Final Tar Creek Strategic Plan to advance the cleanup of the Tar Creek Superfund site. The EPA indicated while great progress had been made, much work was yet to be done, and the Plan was a commitment to accelerate the cleanup.


Christmas Parades (2015-present)


In 2015, former residents began holding “Coming Home for Christmas” parades. The parades begin at the high school and go down Main Street. According to Sherri Mills, a member of the organizing committee, “It just keeps getting bigger because people are sharing their memories for their grandkids. They plan vacation time around the time to come home for the Christmas parade.”


Notable People


Joe Don Rooney, country musician with the band Rascal Flatts

Tim Spencer, singer and songwriter for Sons of the Pioneers and actor



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