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Case Files: Picher, Oklahoma

Updated: Mar 4, 2023

Picher, located in Ottawa County in the state of Oklahoma, was once a quaint little American mining community. The town, which sits just a quarter-mile off of Route 66, was the national center of lead and zinc mining. Cars filled the streets. The Picher Lead Company was a thriving business. Neighborhood kids played in their yards. There were high school basketball games and church bake sales. Commerce was booming. It was a hardworking, typical small town in the United States.

In 2000, the population of Picher, Oklahoma was 1640. In 2010, it was 20. Today, it’s zero.

Let's start with the Quapaw Tribe,

(Note, just about every article I found about Picher said "once inhabited by Quapaw Indians" and left it at that. They also usually say something like "town founded after drillers find lead and zinc." This is NOT what happened. CLAP BACK : WE HAVE GOT TO STOP MINIMIZING WHAT WE DID TO THE NATIVES. PERIOD.

The first inhabitants where Picher would later be built. They were removed to Indian Territory in 1834, and since not many of the tribe was left after removal, they were given this small patch of land as a reservation. Then, around 1905, they discovered lead and zinc on the reservation. Many members refused to lease their lands to mining companies. The Mining companies knew how much could be made there, so they tried to acquire the land through the Federal Bureau on Indian Affairs. The BIA then went to Congress and had individual land owners declared incompetent, so that they could sign mining leases on their behalf. This came just in time for World War 1 and lead Picher to becoming a "Boom Town".

The town of Picher, Okla became an incorporated community in 1920, with a population of 9,726. The town was built around lead and zinc mining. Picher mine shafts produced over half of the lead used to make bullets fired during World War I. The community's contribution to the war effort continued through World War II. The zinc ore mines continued to churn out the in-demand material. They were processing 10 million pounds of ore per day. The town became one of the largest exporters of zinc and lead in the world.

Years of extracting ore from the earth lead to large piles of toxic waste from the mines scattered about the city with the wind, tons of mill sand known as chat. These contaminated mine tailings have a severe impact on the environment and human health. The Picher area became a toxic place, the residents were exposed to the harmful toxins every time they stepped outside their door. But they had no idea of the hazards. Kids would ride their bikes up and down the chat piles. Some parents even used chat to fill their kids' sandboxes.

This chat still exists in Picher today in a 7,000 acre ridgeline of chat piles, some as high as 300 ft tall. According to US Bureau of Mines, they produced 1.7 million tons of lead and 8.8 million tons of zinc between 1891 and 1970 at a profit of about 202 Million dollars.

In 1967, the mines shut down because of industrial abuse. 178 million tons of chat was left behind. 14,000 mine shafts were deserted. The industrial water pumps were also shut off, and eventually refilled with ground water and leaked acid into Tar Creek which empties into Grand Lake. According to experts, even fish could not survive. Shortly after, the towns water became toxic to drink. Children would come home with supposed sunburns, but were actually chemical burns from the toxic water. and orange hair that wouldn't wash out, and the mining-induced eroded soil made sinkholes and cave-ins a serious risk.

Karen Harvey, who lived in Picher from 1960 to 2002. At age 18, she underwent corrective surgery due to bone growth in her ears. She tested a 65 I.Q. and is dyslexic.

Even with all this, people continued to use the chat in their homes, putting it in children's sandboxes, using it to complete their driveways, and in home foundations, and on school playgrounds. All the roads and business parking lots are chat as well. And people continued to swim in the local swimming holes. Picher schools had the lowest test scores in the state. People were sick more often than not.

In 1983, the Federal government included the mining town as a Tar Creek Superfund site, a program to aid the communities of Picher and Cardin, Oklahoma. Federal authorities surveyed the area, identifying hazardous sites. The EPA designated funds to cap mine shafts and deliver clean water to the Picher community. But residents were already suffering the effects of the contamination. Once lead has entered the bloodstream, it doesn’t leave.

A 2004 EPA Technical Assistance Grant funded studies that proved disease rates in the tri-state mining region were 20 to 30 percent above average. And chronic lung disease was 2,000 times higher. The high-school sports teams from nearby towns refused to play in Picher anymore.

Over a decade, in the 1990's after the Superfund was established, through blood tests, it was discovered that 63 percent of children were suffering from lead poisoning. What was done? A billboard campaign called "Don't Put Lead in Your Head" that encouraged hand washing. The environmental protection agency spend over 140 millions dollars to replace top soil in the area. Crews removed the top 6 to 10 inches of soil from people’s yards.

In the 2000s, Picher was deemed unlivable, evacuated. The army core of engineers said that 86% of the town was at risk of collapsing. In 2005, the government started a buy out to relocate 52 residents at 55$ per square foot. The Quapaw still own 80% of the superfund site that includes Picher. After the government buyout, the land reverted to it's original owners.

Then in 2006, federal inspectors determined that as many as 9 out of 10 buildings in town could collapse into the abandoned mines underground.

In 2008, the EPA finally made the decision to start cleaning up the chat. They began in 2009. But the original tribe thought they needed to be in charge of the clean up as to reclaim the land. They could also offer in house experts whereas the state would have to hire contractors making it more expensive, so in 2014 The Tribe took over the clean up of the area. So far, they have cleaned up around 3 million tons of chat, storinging it back in the mines. But much chat still remains and experts say it could be another couple decades before the town is fully cleaned, and who knows how long before it's non toxic again.

However, the federal government retained control of the chat — and its profits. After they removed the sediment, they sold chat to paving companies as a strengthening agent in asphalt. Later, they allowed the Quapaw to assist in the sales. In 2017, the EPA granted the Quapaw $4.9 million in cleanup assistance.

About 30 Million yards of chat remain in Picher to this day. More than 1000 migratory birds were found dead in Picher in 2015.

Only about half the town had moved in May 2008, when, to make matters worse, an EF4 tornado tore through the town killing six people, leveling buildings on the main streets, and destroying over 100 homes. For most of Picher's remaining residents, it was the final straw.

Those who stuck around were some combination of stubborn and survivalist. By the time Wired ran a story on Picher in 2010, most of the town had been condemned, burned, or looted. One resident had even caught an indie film company shooting a porn movie in the abandoned chapel. With the population at just 20, people were bartering or making special trips to nearby towns for supplies. They turned one of the chat hills into a shooting range; on another they rode ATVs. One man added bigger tires to his truck in order to drive through the toxic dust. These people called themselves “chat rats.”

The Burger Basket, which proudly proclaimed itself "the Last Place in Picher," was demolished in 2011. The Last Man Standing, "Gary Linderman" Dies at age 60 due to "sudden illness". He owned a pharmacy there called "Old Miner Pharmacy" and people would come from miles around as they visited the Ghost Town. They called him "Lights Out Linderman" because it's said that he would "turn the lights out on the town when and if he ever left." Linderman and his staff of three often delivered medications to customers in rural areas of nearby Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri. “If somebody couldn’t afford the drugs the doctor ordered he’d give them free samples, or if he didn’t have samples he’d give them free drugs.

The charter was dissolved in 2013, making the town of Picher, formally no more.

As of 2014, only 10 people lived in the town formerly known as Picher. By that time, the government had spent $301 million on teardown and cleanup, with another $178 million projected for digging new wells and setting up water treatment facilities.

Today, Picher is a ghost town in the truest sense of the term. The school closed down, and businesses shut their doors for good. The Picher area's population dropped from 1,640 to 20 in less than a decade.

Though Picher is a ghost town, a stalwart few have remained to keep watch over the remaining buildings and homes. These self-proclaimed "chat rats" live with the ghost of a town that once was. For them, Picher is the only home they've known, and their hometown pride is unshakable. Toxic air, sinking ground, and tornadoes can't drive them out.

And Picher's toxicity hasn't kept curious explorers from venturing through the wasteland. YouTube is full of videos of folks wandering the lonely streets and through Picher's abandoned buildings, exposing themselves to the toxicity there.

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. 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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