Today, a Town Dies

Tuesday, September 1, 2009. Picher, Oklahoma died. Rest in peace.

We’ve all heard of ghost towns, those places of lost hope and faded glory, of abandonment, dejection and crumbling ruins. It’s not merely a relic of a distant past. Modern day ghost towns also join the spectral realm while their inhabitants scatter for safer harbors.

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Picher’s plight has been covered thoroughly by the media, both mainstream and blog so I won’t go into much detail. There are people who have written more eloquently on the topic than I could ever hope to equal, so I will simply provide an overview and post a few images, and let that serve as an epitaph.

Upwards of fifteen thousand people called Picher home during its peak years leading up to the Second World War. How could a town of such obvious size simply disappear? Alas, its success, indeed its very reason for existence, led to its ultimate demise. Switching the map to satellite view reveals the forlorn fingerprints of the culprit scarring the landscape.

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Picher sat atop large deposits of zinc and lead. Mines punctured the earth in every conceivable direction. Metals pulled from Picher’s grounds fueled industries and served an American nation. Pitcher’s lead pounded through countless rifle barrels during two World Wars.

The mines provided solid jobs for the thousands of people who moved to Picher, and granted idyllic lives to those who raised their families there. However waste produced by the mining process, the "chat" had to go somewhere. Huge mounds of discarded material blotted the landscape throughout town and the into outlying areas. They show up on satellite images as gray-white splotches.

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The mounds are even more dramatic at ground level, and a lot more insidious with the residual heavy metals that remain behind. Toxic remnants went airborne within the dust and leached into the groundwater, poisoning an entire basin including the very population that came here to mine it. Picher is an ecological disaster, the stark ground-zero of a 40 square mile environmental tragedy known as the Tar Creek Superfund Site.

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The mines played-out and closed by 1970. Picher began losing population even before the detrimental health effects of the lead-infused chat became widely known to scientists or residents. A steady exodus began, accelerating as the Environmental Protection Agency studied the problem and focused on a cleanup strategy. Less than two thousand residents remained when the government began offering monetary buyouts for people to leave. Abandoned storefronts appeared along a primary route through town, Connell Avenue.

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Buildings began to collapse from neglect (be sure to rotate the image 180 degrees to see some particularly bleak landscape).

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And bulldozers moved in to flatten abandoned properties.

Scientists determined that mine tunnels under Picher were in eminent danger of collapse, threatening many structures and providing further incentive for residents to accept buyouts. The population had probably fallen below a hundred when an EF4 tornado tore through town on On May 10, 2008, killing several, injuring scores, and flattening twenty city blocks and a more hundred homes (damage not visible on Google Street View which apparently came through town prior to the final disaster). Even mother nature seemed to conspire to shut Picher down.

Most of the die-hards saw enough by that point. The high school graduated its final class this summer and closed. The local post office followed suit and shuttered its doors in June. The town government voted to disband on September 1. A bare handful vow to remain, possibly as few as four souls, but they will face a lonely existence without electricity, water, public services or neighbors.

The government will remove the buildings, the roads, the 100 foot piles of chat, the contaminated soil, the utilities, everything. Picher will be obliterated, as if it never existed, an empty space devoid of human contact. It will linger on as ghostly images in Google Street View for awhile, but then someone someday – perhaps years from now – will post a comment on the Twelve Mile Circle saying simply, "it is gone."

4 Replies to “Today, a Town Dies”

  1. So they finally closed it down. I saw the PBS program (Link here) about this place a year ago and it seemed then that the hold outs would stay for at least another decade.

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