Picher, Oklahoma

Peak Population: 14,252 (1926)
Current Population: 1 (2014)
County: Ottawa, Oklahoma
GPS Coordinates: 36°58'58N, 94°49'58W
Year Founded: 1918
Year Condemned: 2009

Site Visited: 07 December, 2014
Weather: Overcast
Temperature: 40°F / 4°C
Duration: 6 Hours

Remnants: Multiple Homes, Commercial Units, Mining Equpiment, Street Grids,

A solid layer of white, puffy clouds stretched to the horizon as the reliable T-34C engine continued its' monotonous drone at 2200 RPM, flying high above. A slight tailwind carried us along before we commenced our descent through gray and turbulence. Three wheels touched down in Oklahoma City. The sky was a thick gray, the ground a deep brownish red - exactly how I remembered it from seven years ago.

It was nearly dark by the time I began my three hour drive from Oklahoma City, through Tulsa, to a motel stop in the town of Miami. I slept early. Morning arrived quickly and I headed north along Highway 69, eagerly anticipating what I was going to encounter. Gray mountains slowly came into view along the horizon - enormous piles of "chat", or lead waste leftover from the 1920's mining boom responsible for Picher's population peak in 1926. Massive subsurface operations throughout the years resulted in unstable ground and toxic lead and zinc elements seeping into the water supply. A study conducted in 1996 revealed lead poisoning in more than a third of the local children. The city's fate was sealed in 2008 when an F4 tornado destroyed over 150 homes and in 2009 the town ceased official operations for good. Today Picher is a complete ghost town. A solitary resident remains to operate the city's only business - a small pharmacy in the city center. I drove in slowly, hoping to find whatever remnants remained of an abandoned mining town.

I parked off to the side of the road - almost positive I was the only person for miles. The scene was eerie, accented by the ominous gray sky and quiet air vaguely scented with wet dirt. Even though almost all of Picher's residential structures were cleared a few years ago, the street grid is still in good condition, giving away just how expansive the city once was. Concrete foundations are all that remain for most structures, but a few dilapidated homes sit crumbling behind overgrowth and debris. It is interesting to note that the smell of a deserted home is very unique. It is the smell of mildew and decay trapped in a musty environment and has smelled the exact same way to me no matter where the abandoned location exists. A quick search of several homes littered throughout the forgotten grids revealed little. A few interesting artifacts remained; a little girl's school portrait next to a father-son hunting photo, a letter to grandma, some prescription bottles - all glimpses into the normal life of a Picher resident long gone.

I glanced at my watch. Almost noon which meant only five hours of daylight and five hours of exploring. Walking the centerline of one of the deserted roads, I came across an old barrier blocking a street that led straight to one of the chat mountains. This road was much less maintained and scattered with countless fallen tree branches. Half a mile later, a ragged barbed-wire fence sat between me and a perfect viewpoint of the surrounding area. Sorry fence. While trekking straight up the hillside, a thought crossed my mind. "I am walking on a three-hundred foot tall mountain of lead waste." Lead never hurt anybody right? The view was not disappointing and even further illustrated the enormity of the city. Street grids stretched for miles in all directions, interwoven between countless mounds of lead waste varying in size and shape.

I headed South towards what looked like an equipment graveyard. Massive pieces of mining equipment, completely rusted through, sat strewn in heaps and piles amidst even larger piles of chat. I could faintly hear the sound of moving water and soon located a river bubbling up out of the ground. The river ran an unnatural red, dyeing the soil and dead plants that lined its' banks, another ominous sign of how extreme the pollution had become in this area.

I began walking a cracked road back towards the car. To my right, the remnants of a mining location sat poking out of the ground - their concrete pillars and twisted rebar were all that remained of something once larger. An abandoned mineshaft jutted out from the base of a lead pile, inviting me to take a peak. The road eventually passed a deserted baseball diamond and an overgrown park before emerging onto one of the familiar main streets.

At this point I elected to save time and drove through the city streets, photographing what I could and what looked interesting. I passed by the abandoned Picher-Cardin High school with the Picher Gorilla mascot still painted proudly on the school wall. The historical Picher Mining Museum was next but was completely cleared out.

My final stop in the deserted city was the commercial district. Badly decaying storefronts sat leaning upon one another, seemingly all emptied out save for one that looked somewhat intact. The inside revealed a collapsed roof that let in what little light the gray skies would allow. A dilapidated piano sat nestled in a corner with various toys and appliances scattered about the dusty floors. The smell of decay was especially strong here.

As I walked back to the car I stopped and breathed in deeply, the fresh air was a welcome relief after the stuffiness of the forgotten store. I look at the darkening sky as it began to drizzle. A very slight breeze could be felt now, lulling and coaxing me to leave. I could not get over how deathly quiet it was here; a proud city of 14,000 reduced to a single resident and a handful of neglected structures waiting to be reclaimed by time. It felt less eerie now and more peaceful - a melancholy peace that continued to be felt as I watched Picher slowly disappear behind me. I doubt I will ever return.