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Case Files: Picher, Oklahoma

Updated: May 10

Picher, Oklahoma: From Boom Town to Toxic Legacy

By Raven Rollins, Staff Writer

Picher, Oklahoma—nestled in Ottawa County within the state of Oklahoma—once thrived as a bustling American mining community. Located just a quarter-mile off Route 66, it stood as the national epicenter of lead and zinc mining. Streets buzzed with activity, cars filled the roads, and the Picher Lead Company flourished. Children played in yards, high school basketball games echoed through the air, and church bake sales brought the community together. Picher embodied the quintessential small-town American spirit.

However, the town’s trajectory took a dramatic turn. In the year 2000, Picher’s population stood at 1,640. By 2010, it had dwindled to a mere 20 residents. Today, the town lies abandoned, its population reduced to zero.

The Quapaw Tribe and the Land

Before Picher’s rise, the land was inhabited by the Quapaw Tribe. However, common narratives often gloss over their presence, merely stating that the town was “once inhabited by Quapaw Indians.” It’s time to set the record straight: we must stop minimizing the impact on Native communities.

The Quapaw people initially occupied the area that would later become Picher. In 1834, they were forcibly removed to Indian Territory (now part of Oklahoma). With only a small remnant of the tribe remaining, they were granted a reservation—a modest patch of land. Around 1905, lead and zinc deposits were discovered on this reservation. Despite some tribal members refusing to lease their lands to mining companies, the allure of profit drove mining interests. The Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) stepped in, declaring individual landowners incompetent and signing mining leases on their behalf. This coincided with World War I, propelling Picher into boomtown status.

Picher’s Mining Legacy

By 1920, Picher had become an incorporated community with a population of 9,726. The town revolved around lead and zinc mining. Its mine shafts produced over half the lead used for World War I bullets, and this contribution continued through World War II. Picher’s zinc ore mines churned out the much-needed material, processing a staggering 10 million pounds of ore daily. The town proudly ranked among the world’s largest exporters of zinc and lead.

Yet prosperity came at a cost. Years of ore extraction left behind toxic waste—millions of tons of contaminated mine tailings known as “chat.” These piles of chat scattered throughout the city posed severe environmental and health risks. Residents unknowingly faced exposure to hazardous toxins every time they stepped outside. Children played on chat piles, and some parents even used it to fill their kids’ sandboxes.

Toxic Legacy and Abandonment

Today, Picher remains a haunting testament to its past. The 7,000-acre ridgeline of chat piles—some towering up to 300 feet—still scars the landscape. According to the U.S. Bureau of Mines, between 1891 and 1970, Picher produced 1.7 million tons of lead and 8.8 million tons of zinc, yielding profits of approximately $202 million. But this prosperity came with a heavy price: a toxic legacy that rendered the town uninhabitable.

As we reflect on Picher’s rise and fall, let us remember the Quapaw Tribe, honor their history, and acknowledge the impact of mining on both the land and its people. Picher’s story serves as a stark reminder of the delicate balance between progress and preservation—a lesson etched into the very soil of this once-vibrant community.

Picher, Oklahoma—once a thriving mining hub—now stands as a haunting testament to industrial excess and environmental devastation. In 1967, the mines ceased operations due to rampant abuse, leaving behind a staggering 178 million tons of chat—a toxic residue from lead and zinc mining. The town’s 14,000 mine shafts lay deserted, their once-bustling activity silenced.

A Poisoned Water Supply

As the industrial water pumps shut down, they were gradually refilled with groundwater, which then leaked acid into Tar Creek—a waterway that eventually empties into Grand Lake. Even fish struggled to survive in these contaminated waters. The town’s drinking water turned toxic, causing unsuspecting residents to suffer chemical burns—mistakenly attributed to sunburns—and leaving children with orange hair that defied washing. Meanwhile, eroded soil from mining activities increased the risk of sinkholes and cave-ins.

Karen Harvey’s Struggle

Karen Harvey, a Picher resident from 1960 to 2002, faced her own battles. At age 18, she underwent corrective surgery for bone growth in her ears. With a tested IQ of 65 and dyslexia, her life was marked by the town’s toxic legacy.

Chat Piles Everywhere

Despite the dangers, some residents continued to use chat—the hazardous mine tailings—in their homes. It found its way into children’s sandboxes, driveways, home foundations, and even school playgrounds. The very roads and business parking lots were paved with chat. Swimming holes remained popular, despite the risks.

Superfund Intervention

In 1983, the federal government designated Picher as a Tar Creek Superfund site, aiming to assist the struggling communities of Picher and Cardin, Oklahoma. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allocated funds to cap mine shafts and provide clean water. However, the damage was already done—lead, once in the bloodstream, remains there.

Alarming Health Statistics

A 2004 EPA Technical Assistance Grant funded studies revealing disease rates in the tri-state mining region were 20 to 30 percent above average. Chronic lung disease was a staggering 2,000 times higher. Nearby high-school sports teams refused to play in Picher.

Lead Poisoning Epidemic

By the 1990s, blood tests confirmed that 63 percent of Picher’s children suffered from lead poisoning. The response? A billboard campaign urging handwashing: “Don’t Put Lead in Your Head.” The EPA invested over $140 million to replace contaminated topsoil, removing 6 to 10 inches from yards.

Abandonment and Collapse

In the 2000s, Picher became uninhabitable. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warned that 86 percent of the town faced collapse due to abandoned mines. A government buyout relocated 52 residents at $55 per square foot. The Quapaw Tribe still owns 80 percent of the superfund site, which includes Picher. And in 2006, federal inspectors feared that up to 9 out of 10 buildings could collapse into the underground voids left by mining.

Picher’s rise and fall serve as a stark reminder of the delicate balance between progress, preservation, and the irreversible toll of environmental neglect.

The Cleanup Effort Begins

In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made a crucial decision: it was time to tackle the toxic chat piles that blighted Picher’s landscape. The cleanup officially commenced in 2009. However, the Quapaw Tribe, the original inhabitants of the land, believed they should lead the restoration efforts. Their rationale? They could provide in-house expertise, potentially making the process more efficient and cost-effective than hiring external contractors. In 2014, the Tribe took charge of the cleanup, diligently removing approximately 3 million tons of chat and storing it back in the abandoned mines. Yet, despite their progress, much chat still remains, and experts predict it could take several more decades before the town is fully cleansed—and who knows when it will be truly non-toxic again.

Federal Control and Profit

While the Quapaw Tribe spearheaded the cleanup, the federal government retained control of the chat—and its profits. After sediment removal, the government sold chat to paving companies, using it as a strengthening agent in asphalt. Later, they allowed the Quapaw to participate in sales. In 2017, the EPA granted the Tribe $4.9 million in cleanup assistance.

Lingering Hazards

Approximately 30 million yards of chat persist in Picher to this day. The town’s toxicity extends beyond its borders: more than 1,000 migratory birds were found dead in Picher in 2015.

The Final Straws

By May 2008, only about half of Picher’s population had moved away. Then, disaster struck. An EF4 tornado tore through the town, claiming six lives, leveling buildings, and destroying over 100 homes. For many remaining residents, it was the last straw.

The Stubborn Survivors

Those who clung to Picher were a unique breed—part stubborn, part survivalist. Wired magazine chronicled their plight in 2010: condemned, burned, or looted buildings surrounded them. One resident even stumbled upon an indie film company shooting a pornographic movie in an abandoned chapel. With a population of just 20, these resilient souls bartered and made special trips to neighboring towns for supplies. They transformed chat hills into shooting ranges and rode ATVs across the toxic terrain. One man outfitted his truck with larger tires to navigate the hazardous dust. They dubbed themselves the “chat rats.”

Lights Out Linderman

Gary Linderman, the Last Man Standing, epitomized Picher’s spirit. Owner of “Old Miner Pharmacy,” he dispensed medications to customers across Arkansas, Kansas, and Missouri. Linderman’s commitment earned him the nickname “Lights Out Linderman”—a nod to the belief that he’d never leave the town. Sadly, he passed away at age 60 due to sudden illness.

Dissolution and Decline

In 2013, the town’s charter dissolved, officially erasing Picher from existence. By 2014, only ten people remained in the once-vibrant community. The government had poured $301 million into teardowns and cleanup, with another $178 million projected for well digging and water treatment facilities.

Ghost Town Resilience

Today, Picher epitomizes the term “ghost town.” Schools have closed, businesses shuttered, and the population plummeted from 1,640 to 20 in less than a decade. Yet, a stalwart few—the chat rats—cling to their hometown pride. Toxic air, sinking ground, and tornadoes haven’t driven them away.

Curious Explorers and Vanishing History

Picher’s toxicity hasn’t deterred curious explorers. YouTube brims with videos of intrepid souls wandering its lonely streets and exploring abandoned buildings, risking exposure to the lingering toxins and sink holes.

The Lost Museum

The Picher Mining Museum, once on the National Register of Historic Places, no longer stands. Fire consumed its exhibits and archives, leaving only memories of a bygone era.

Picher’s legacy—a cautionary tale etched into the Oklahoma soil—serves as a stark reminder of humanity’s impact on the land and the indomitable spirit of those who remain. Hauntings

  • Too many deaths during the mining operations to count from cave ins and exposure. I'm guessing these weren't detailed recordings for each year as to not deter people from working here. Five Miners Killed at One Time in Picher - January 31, 1939 - Jess Crossland, Frank Porter, John Anderson, John Frederick McCumber, James Orval Campbell and Harry Burtrum were the five miners killed. And three in 1953. The report lists the three fatalities as William Robert O’Byrne, a drill helper from Picher Oklahoma; Albert Marvin Brown, machine man, of Hallowell Kansas and James Franklin Davis, a leader operator from Chetopa Kansas. Two of the men were killed by falling slabs of rock. That year, there were 64 non fatal injuries.

  • It's said that, if you stand still and listen carefully, you can hear the sound of people mining, their picks hitting stone.

  • The earth rumbles and some say that the sink holes opening up around the town were gateways to hell for stealing the Native's lands.

  • There have been over 150 deaths in the town of Picher that's known, including "natural causes."

  • In 2018, the body of 24 year old Tyler Applebee was discovered by hunters just south of Picher. Police said he had no connection to Oklahoma, as he was from Missouri. Cause of death wasn't released, but Headlines did read "OSBI need help solving murder", and to my knowledge, the case remains cold.

  • In April 20201, a man was riding his motorcycle through the area when he hit a pole. It's said you can still hear the motorcycle in the distance.

  • Some say they can still hear a childs music box from the early 1900s being played in random locations.

  • Although, this is a very creepy location, and literally anyone can just go there, as long as you can get past the government road blocks stating "government property, no trespassing", we don't recommend doing so, as you will be putting yourself at risk to toxic exposure and possible cave ins and sink holes, not to mention the buildings are no longer sturdy and could literally collapse at any time. You may also get jail time if caught.












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