The Toxic Ghost Town of Picher

Nov 1, 2016 3 comments

The northeastern corner of the US state of Oklahoma was once the most productive lead and zinc mining areas of the world. The metals were discovered here in 1914, just in time for the increased demands for ammunitions created by the First World War. Soon there were hundreds of mines and thousands of people toiled under the ground working for the Picher Lead Company. The town of Picher, along with the nearby towns of Cardin and Treece in Kansas developed overnight.

At its peak, Picher’ mills processed nearly 5,000 tons of raw ore a day. They crushed the ore into fine grains and melted it in giant smelter to filter away the impurities. Only a fraction of the melted ore produced actual valuable minerals. The useless residue, contaminated with toxic metals, were piled up outside the mines until it created a 7,000-acre ridge containing 70 million tons of mine tailings, and 36 million tons of mill sand and sludge. This fine-grained mine tailings known as chat, blew all over the town and people breathed them in. When it rained, the runoff from the chat piles got into the local water supply.


The main street of Picher. Some shops still have items displayed at the windows. Photo credit: Jeremy/Flickr

In the 1980s, the government launched a cleanup operation to make Picher livable again, but even in the mid-90s, close to two-third of Picher’s children were still suffering from lead poisoning. In 2006, the Army Corps of Engineers discovered that the town was severely undermined by massive voids that could collapse at any moment. Based on this report, the government gave its final verdict: Picher was to be evacuated.

The final blow came in 2008, when a tornado ripped across the town killing eight people and causing extensive damage. Rebuilding Picher was now out of question. The only option left was to leave it behind.


Picher during its heydays. Photo credit: Randy Lane/Flickr


Photo credit: Jeremy/Flickr


The fine-grained chat piles are unstable and dangerously poisonous, but in their own way, they are beautiful.  Photo credit: Kelly/Flickr


Photo credit: Jeremy/Flickr


Photo credit: Tyson Luneau/Flickr


Photo credit: Tyson Luneau/Flickr

Sources: Wikipedia / Wired


  1. And yet corporations decry there are too many “job killing regulations” in the US.

  2. "Cry me a river hippie" this troll can pollute it.


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