Picher: Oklahoma's Best-Known Ghost Town - 405 Magazine

Picher: Oklahoma’s Best-Known Ghost Town

Rusted and Gone. Picher’s poisonous past and ghostly present.

picher water tower in Oklahoma

Once a thriving community in northeast Oklahoma, Picher is now abandoned with crumbling and vacant buildings surrounded by towering hills of chat, a hazardous byproduct of lead and zinc mining.

It was mining that helped build this industrial boom town, and it was the result of that mining that destroyed it.

In late 1913, the area developed literally overnight after a homeowner discovered lead on his property. Named after the owner of the Picher Lead Co., the town was incorporated in 1918. Two years later, the population had grown to 9,726, and peaked at 14,252 in 1926 when mining was at its highest level, before dropping to 2,553 in 1960.

At its heyday, the town had more than 200 mills processing 10 million pounds of ore a day. More than 14,000 men worked in the mines with another 1,500 in mining services businesses.

During World War I, zinc and lead were crucial for making bullets and building tanks and trucks; more than 50% of the metals coming from Picher Field.

Picher, part of the Tri-State Lead and Zinc District that included Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri, had the most productive mining field in the district, producing more than $20 billion in ore from 1917 to 1947, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Eventually the ore ran out, and the mines closed in 1967. But the town’s future was more dire than anyone knew. Contaminated water began to seep from the abandoned mines in 1973. Nearby Tar Creek started turning red. Few suspected those chat hills that had become a playground for residents could be deadly, even for those who just breathed in the toxic dust as the wind carried it through town.

When the mines closed, Picher was surrounded by approximately 30 massive hills of chat, mill sand and sludge equaling some 178 million tons. A decade later, state tests revealed heavy metal contamination and in 1983, the Environmental Protection Agency declared Picher a part of its Tar Creek Superfund Site, a national priority list for the most toxic areas in the country. 

picher chat hill and homes
Dozens of towering hills made of hazardous mine waste still surround the abandoned town of Picher. Photo by Linda Miller.

The Oklahoman newspaper reported that those who worked in the Picher Field were more prone to liver failure, lung cancer and tuberculosis than the average person. Children in Picher seemed to get sick more often and students’ test results were far below others in the state.

The CDC says exposure to lead can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems and hearing and speech problems. As health and safety concerns mounted, the federal government offered buyouts to residents and business owners, though many opted to stay.

On May 10, 2008, an EF-4 tornado tore through town, killing six and destroying more than 160 homes. It also wiped out any chance for Picher’s survival. Collapsing mine shafts and tunnels were a primary concern, so the EPA evacuated the town. More buyouts were offered. The town’s incorporated status was withdrawn on Sept. 1, 2009. Demolition of houses and buildings began a few months later.

Cleanup continues to slowly shrink the chat hills, though destruction is still evident. Crumbled piles of lumber hint at what was once a home or business. Concrete steps lead to nowhere. Brick buildings are missing doors, windows and some walls. Overgrown weeds and grass have replaced gardens, lawns and people.

But the Picher water tower continues to stand tall and strong as if guarding the memory of what was — both the good and the bad.

Interested in more Oklahoma Ghost Towns? Check out this story on Lake Texoma.