Picher Oklahoma | America’s Most Toxic Ghost Town

On the border of Kansas and Oklahoma sits the small ghost town of Picher Oklahoma. What devastated Picher is so remarkable, it can even be seen from space.

Picher Oklahoma map
Chat piles (mining waste) dot the area of Picher, and can even be seen from space.

Picher was born from the mining industry. In fact, the town was named after The Picher Lead Company. But the very thing that brought this city to life, would eventually bring it to it’s end.

The mining boom began in 1913 when massive deposits of lead and zinc were discovered in the Picher area.

There was one problem however. That land belonged to the indigenous Quapaw tribe people, and they did not want to lease it for drilling.

The Quapaw were already driven off their native land to the far northeast corner of the state, and many did not want to cooperate.

Quapaw tribe
Quapaw Tribe circa 1910

The mining companies put pressure on the Bureau Of Indian Affairs, and eventually the BIA had declared the Quapaw people ‘incompetent’, so they could sign mining leases on their behalf.

A town was quickly built to sustain the mining effort.

Thus Picher was born.

Picher Oklahoma early 1900s
Photo courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society.
picher Oklahoma black eagle mine shaft
Taken at the Black Eagle Mine Shaft. Date unknown.

Picher became the largest producer of zinc and lead in the area, and contributed over 50% of the lead and zinc use in World War I.

As mining continued over the years, so did the damage to the environment. Slowly chat piles began to form all across the flat Oklahoma country side, until they completely consumed the town of Picher.

Mining eventually came to an end in 1967, as did the pumping of contaminated water out of the mines. An estimated 14,000 abandoned mine shafts now pock the landscape, creating unstable land above.

Picher oklahoma sinkhole
A massive sinkhole appears overnight in Picher Oklahoma.

As rain and storms passed through Picher the water contaminated with heavy metals entered rivers, ponds, and well water.

Years of unregulated mining left Picher a toxic wasteland.

Rivers run bright orange with heavy metals, toxic groundwater seeps into drinking water, and large portions of land seem to randomly collapse into sinkholes from unstable mines below.

The sun sets under one of the many remaining chat piles in Picher Oklahoma

Strong winds blew against the chat piles blowing fine zinc particulates into the lungs of the residence. Children swimming in the local ponds would come home with acidic burns on their skin.

It wasn’t until 1980 that the site was finally deemed a Superfund site and scheduled for emergency cleanup.

Still, the magnitude of just how ill the town was wasn’t discovered until the 90s, when blood tests found that 67% of the town’s children had lead poisoning.

Heavy metal poisoning can cause irreversible neurological damage, and learning disabilities.

Despite the terrible conditions, there were a few locals that refused to leave.

But life in Picher was going to get a lot worse.

Picher Oklahoma Tornado

Picher Oklahoma tornado

On May 10th, 2008 a category EF4 tornado ripped through Picher and the surrounding area further deviating the land. The tornado left at least 8 people dead and over 150 injured.

Buildings were completely leveled or left destroyed. The high winds carried chat from their massive piles and spread it further into the rivers, waterways and communities, amplifying the environmental damage even more.

Due to the condition of the town, federal aide to rebuild was denied however buybacks and relocation services were provided to the few residents that remained.

A year later in 2009 the community voted to close their only school. Shortly thereafter the post office stopped providing mail, and the city stopped municipality operations.

By June 29th, 2009 all of the residence had received relocation funds from the government to vacate the town. As of Fall 2010, it’s estimated only 6 people still live in Picher.

Picher Cleanup Efforts

Local wildlife suffers due to pollutants in and around Picher Oklahoma

The government eventually returned the now toxic and uninhabitable land to the Quapaw people in 2014.

Although this may seem like a slap in the face, the Quapaw are doing their best to clean the land, and return it to it’s former state before the mines ever opened.

Exploring Picher Today

During a route 66 trip across the country I decided we should make a stop in Picher, to was just too close to pass up.

I get a lot of messages asking if you can visit or drive through Picher Oklahoma. The answer is yes you can! There are certain areas that are ‘off-limits’ due to sinkholes and collapse but you can certainly drive through the town.

As you begin to enter the ghost town the first thing you’ll notice is the massive chat piles. They dwarf any other structures you can see for miles. It almost feels like you’re walking through the Sahara desert when you’re next to one. The chat piles in Picher can reach up to 300 feet in height.

Nearly all of the abandoned homes and buildings have been destroyed or demolished, but there are a few gems that are still hidden away.

It sometimes feels like a maze, navigating down these endless empty blocks of road where houses once stood. We’d occasionally be obstructed by concrete barricades or the edge of a massive chat pile that crept it’s away across a part of the path.

We can learn a lot from Picher, and hopefully prevent similar devastation in other mining communities. I think by keeping the past of Picher alive today, we keep those hard lessons in the front of our minds.

Those who fail to learn from history, are damned to repeat it.