Picher, Oklahoma

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Picher, Oklahoma
A view looking north along Connell Ave, which was the main business district, 2007. The Picher Water Tower stands in the background.
A view looking north along Connell Ave, which was the main business district, 2007. The Picher Water Tower stands in the background.
Location within Ottawa County showing former municipal boundaries
Location within Ottawa County showing former municipal boundaries
Coordinates: 36°58′58″N 94°49′58″W / 36.98278°N 94.83278°W / 36.98278; -94.83278Coordinates: 36°58′58″N 94°49′58″W / 36.98278°N 94.83278°W / 36.98278; -94.83278
CountryUnited States
 • Total2.2 sq mi (5.8 km2)
 • Land2.2 sq mi (5.8 km2)
 • Water0.0 sq mi (0.0 km2)
Elevation823 ft (251 m)
 • Total20
 • Density9.1/sq mi (3.4/km2)
Time zoneUTC-6 (Central (CST))
 • Summer (DST)UTC-5 (CDT)
ZIP code
Area code(s)539/918
FIPS code40-58550[3]
GNIS feature ID1096611[1]
The mining waste was located very near neighborhoods in the town, 2008

Picher is a ghost town and former city in Ottawa County, northeastern Oklahoma, United States. It was a major national center of lead and zinc mining for more than 100 years in the heart of the Tri-State Mining District.

The decades of unrestricted subsurface excavation dangerously undermined most of Picher's town buildings and left giant piles of toxic metal-contaminated mine tailings (known as chat) heaped throughout the area. The discovery of the cave-in risks, groundwater contamination, and health effects associated with the chat piles (kids playing on the piles and putting it in their sandboxes, as they did not know the toxic danger) and subsurface shafts resulted in the site being included in 1980 in the Tar Creek Superfund Site by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The state collaborated on mitigation and remediation measures, but a 1994 screening result found that 34% of the children in Picher suffered from lead poisoning due to these environmental effects. This can result in lifelong neurological problems.[4] Eventually the EPA and the state of Oklahoma agreed to a mandatory evacuation and buyout of the entire township. The similarly contaminated satellite towns of Treece, Kansas, and Cardin, Oklahoma, were included in the Tar Creek Superfund site.

A 2006 Army Corps of Engineers study showed 86% of Picher's buildings (including the town school) were badly undermined and subject to collapse at any time.[5] The destruction in May 2008 of 150 homes by an EF4 tornado accelerated the exodus of the remaining population.[6]

On September 1, 2009, the state of Oklahoma officially dis-incorporated the city of Picher, which ceased official operations on that day. The population plummeted from 1,640 at the 2000 census to 20 at the 2010 census. The federal government proceeded to conduct buyouts of remaining properties. As of January 2011, six homes and one business remained, their owners having refused to leave at any price. Except for some historic structures, the rest of the town's buildings were scheduled to be demolished by the end of the year. One of the last vacant buildings, which had housed the former Picher mining museum, was destroyed by arson in April 2015. However, its historical archives and artifacts had already been shipped to the Dobson Museum in Miami, Oklahoma by that point.

Picher is among a small number of locations in the world (such as Gilman, Colorado; Centralia, Pennsylvania; and Wittenoom, Western Australia) to be evacuated and declared uninhabitable due to environmental and health damage caused by area mines.

The closest towns to Picher, other than nearby Cardin, Treece, and Douthat, are Commerce, Quapaw (the headquarters of the federally recognized Native American nation by that name), and Miami, Oklahoma.


In 1913, as the Tri-State district expanded, lead and zinc ore were discovered on Harry Crawfish's claim, and mining began. A townsite developed overnight around the new workings and was named Picher in honor of O. S. Picher, owner of Picher Lead Company. The city was incorporated in 1918, and by 1920, Picher had a population of 9,726. Peak population occurred in 1926 with 14,252 residents and was followed by a gradual decline due to the decrease in mining activity, leaving Picher with only 2,553 by 1960.[7]

The Picher area became the most productive lead-zinc mining field in the Tri-State district, producing over $20 billion worth of ore between 1917 and 1947. More than fifty percent of the lead and zinc used during World War I was extracted from the Picher district. At its peak more than 14,000 miners worked the mines and another 4,000 worked in mining services. Many workers commuted by an extensive trolley system from as far away as Joplin and Carthage, Missouri.[7] Mining ceased in 1967 and water pumping from the mines ceased. The contaminated water from some 14,000 abandoned mine shafts, 70 million tons of mine tailings, and 36 million tons of mill sand and sludge remained as a huge environmental cleanup problem.[7] As a result of national legislation to identify and remediate such environmentally hazardous sites, in 1983 the area was designated as part of the Tar Creek Superfund site. In 1994, Indian Health Service test results concerning the blood lead levels of Indian children living on the Site indicated that approximately 35 percent of the children tested had concentrations of lead in their blood exceeding 10 micrograms per deciliter, the level of lead in the blood the Centers for Disease Control considers to be a health concern. In August 1994, to address the threat of lead exposure to children, EPA began sampling soils at high-access areas (HAA), such as day cares, schoolyards, and other areas where children congregate. The sampling detected significant concentrations of lead, cadmium, and other heavy metals in surface soils.

A large gray building currently serving as a museum.
The former Tri State Zinc and Lead Ore Producers Association Office was on the National Register of Historic Places, 2008.[8] The building was destroyed by arson in April 2015.[9]

While some remediation took place in the following quarter century, contamination and other environmental hazards were found to be so severe that the government decided to close Picher and relocate its residents, as reported on April 24, 2006, by Reuters. Due in large part to the removal of large amounts of subsurface material during mining operations, many of the city's structures have been deemed in imminent danger of caving in.[10]


On May 10, 2008, Picher was struck by an EF4 tornado. There were eight confirmed deaths, possibly including one child, and many other people injured.[11] The tornado first touched down near the Kansas–Oklahoma border in Oklahoma southwest of Chetopa, Kansas, and tracked eastward. It struck Picher, causing extensive damage to 20 blocks of the city, with houses and businesses destroyed or flattened. The damage in Picher was rated EF4. At least 150 people were injured in Picher alone. The tornado continued eastward, passing just north of Quapaw and Peoria before crossing Interstate 44 into Missouri. Given the existing plan to vacate the city, the federal government decided against aid to rebuild homes, and the buyouts continued as previously scheduled, with people being assisted in relocation.[12]

Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry sent National Guard troops as well as emergency personnel to assist the hardest hit area in Picher.[13] Loss of power from the tornado forced the city to go on a boiled water notice. Staff from the Oklahoma Rural Water Association arrived to assist, since the utility's testing equipment was destroyed by the storm. With an emergency generator to supply power, rural water staff had the system running normally only two days after the tornado struck.[14]


In April 2009, residents voted 55–6 to dissolve the Picher-Cardin school district; it graduated its final class of 11 in May.[15] By 2009 the district's enrollment had dropped to a total of 49 students from approximately 343 students years prior. Remaining students were assigned to attend Commerce and Quapaw school districts.[16]

Picher-Cardin High School stadium, 2008

The city's post office was scheduled to close in July 2009, and the city ceased operations as a municipality on September 1, 2009.[17] By June 29, 2009, all of the residents had been given federal checks to enable them to relocate from Picher permanently. The city is considered to be too toxic to be habitable. On the last day, all the final residents met at the school auditorium to say goodbye.[18] As of November 2010, it was reported that Picher still had "one business and six occupied houses."[19]

The government carried out a similar relocation program for residents of the adjacent city of Treece, Kansas.[20] On October 29, 2009, Congress voted to allow the EPA to fund the relocation of the remaining citizens of Treece.[4]

Starting in January 2011, almost all remaining commercial structures were scheduled to be demolished. Gary Linderman, owner of the Old Miner's Pharmacy, said he would stay until the last resident left.[21] By March 2014, standing abandoned buildings included the Picher-Cardin High School building, a Christian church, the mining museum, and a handful of mercantile buildings, as well as numerous abandoned houses.

The municipality of Picher was officially dissolved on November 26, 2013.[22]

The Picher Mining Field Museum, which had been housed in the former Tri-State Zinc and Lead Ore Producers Association building, was destroyed by arson in April 2015. The museum archives had previously been sent to Pittsburg State University, and other artifacts had been sent to the Baxter Springs, Kansas Heritage Center and Museum.[9] In March 2017 the often-photographed Christian church, which was originally a one-room schoolhouse, was also destroyed by fire.

Gary Linderman, owner of the Ole Miner Pharmacy, was featured in the May 28, 2007, issue of People magazine in the Heroes Among Us article: "Prescription for Kindness". He vowed to stay as long as there was anyone left who needed him and to be the last one out of the city.[23] He died on June 9, 2015, at the age of 60 from a sudden illness,[24] which officially made Picher a ghost town and brought its population to 0.[disputed ]

Meanwhile, the cleanup continues. On September 17, 2019 the EPA, in cooperation with the state of Oklahoma and the Quapaw Nation, released the Final Tar Creek Strategic Plan to advance the cleanup of the Tar Creek Superfund site. The EPA indicated while great progress had been made, much work was yet to be done, and the Plan was a commitment to accelerate the cleanup.[25]

Christmas Parades (2015-present)[edit]

In 2015, former residents began holding “Coming Home for Christmas” parades. The parades begin at the high school and go down Main Street. According to Sherri Mills, a member of the organizing committee, “It just keeps getting bigger because people are sharing their memories for their grandkids. They plan vacation time around the time to come home for the Christmas parade.”[26]


Picher is located at 36°58′58″N 94°49′58″W / 36.98278°N 94.83278°W / 36.98278; -94.83278 (36.982824, -94.832777).[27] It is 8 miles (13 km) north of Miami, the county seat.[28] According to the United States Census Bureau, the city had a total area of 2.2 square miles (5.7 km2), all of it land.


Historical population
Census Pop.
2019 (est.)0−100.0%
U.S. Decennial Census

2000 census[edit]

As of the census[3] of 2000, there were 1,640 people, 621 households, and 417 families residing in the city. The population density was 734.0 people per square mile (283.9/km2). There were 708 housing units at an average density of 316.9 per square mile (122.6/km2). The racial makeup of the city was 77.13% White, 13.78% Native American, 0.18% Pacific Islander, 0.12% Asian, 0.06% from other races, and 8.72% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.40% of the population.

There were 621 households, out of which 30.9% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 50.6% were married couples living together, 12.4% had a female householder with no husband present, and 32.7% were non-families. 29.1% of all households were made up of individuals, and 14.0% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.58 and the average family size was 3.20.

In the city the population was spread out, with 27.1% under the age of 18, 9.1% from 18 to 24, 24.0% from 25 to 44, 23.5% from 45 to 64, and 16.2% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 37 years. For every 100 females, there were 95.2 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 90.0 males.

The median income for a household in the city was $19,722, and the median income for a family was $25,950. Males had a median income of $22,321 versus $15,947 for females. The per capita income for the city was $10,938. About 21.1% of families and 25.4% of the population were below the poverty line, including 27.4% of those under age 18 and 30.9% of those age 65 or over.


The city was served by the Picher-Cardin Public Schools, which closed in 2009.[29] At that time the municipality was placed in the Quapaw Public Schools.[30]

Representation in other media[edit]

Picher was featured in the PBS Independent Lens film The Creek Runs Red, which discussed the connection of the people and their desire to leave or stay in the city.[31] Picher was also featured in the Jump the Fence Productions film titled Tar Creek (2009). The film was written, directed, and narrated by Matt Myers.[32]

Picher was featured in an episode of Life After People: The Series on the History Channel.[33] The aforementioned tornado was also featured on an episode of the Weather Channel's Storm Stories.

Picher was also featured in the premiere episode of Forgotten Planet: Abandoned America on the Discovery Channel (along with Pripyat, Ukraine) in a story of two cities abandoned due to industrial disasters.[34]

In April 2015, Picher was featured in a segment on the National Geographic Channel called "The Watch", in which one of a handful of holdouts still resides and watches over what is left of the town.[35]

Police investigating the Welch, Oklahoma murders of Danny and Kathy Freemen and the murders of Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman filed charges containing statements from numerous witnesses and alleged accomplices who stated they had heard rumors that Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman were in a pit or mineshaft in Picher, or had been threatened by Warren Philip Welch, lead suspect in the crimes, who told them they would "end up in a pit in Picher like those two girls." Their bodies have never been found, though suspected accomplice Ronnie Dean Busick was arrested in April 2018 for his involvement in the crimes.[36][37] Busick pleaded guilty July 15, 2020 to being an accessory to first-degree murder in the deaths of Danny and Kathy Freeman, the torching of their home near Welch, Oklahoma, and the abduction and presumed slayings of the two girls.[38] He admitted having withheld information about the involvement of Warren "Phil" Welch and David Pennington, both of whom have since died without ever having been charged.[38] He was sentenced to 15 years for the crime, with 10 of the years to be spent in lockup.[38]

In August 2021, Picher, Oklahoma was featured in the Science Channel series What on Earth? Season 10 Episode 91.

Notable people[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Picher, Oklahoma
  2. ^ "2010 City Population and Housing Occupancy Status". U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved March 26, 2012.[dead link]
  3. ^ a b "U.S. Census website". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved 2008-01-31.
  4. ^ a b Saulny, Susan (September 13, 2009). "Welcome to Our Town. Wish We Weren't Here". The New York Times. Retrieved July 11, 2021.
  5. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). www.environment.ok.gov. Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 December 2008. Retrieved 17 January 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  6. ^ Service, US Department of Commerce, NOAA, National Weather. "Picher Tornado May 10, 2008". weather.gov. Retrieved 2018-04-20.
  7. ^ a b c "Tri-State Lead and Zinc District | The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture". www.okhistory.org.
  8. ^ Oklahoma State Historical Society National Register Listing, http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/P/PI002.html
  9. ^ a b Stogsdill, Linda. "Fire destroys Picher Mining Field Museum." Tulsa World. April 26, 2015. Accessed December 25, 2015.
  10. ^ Gillam, Carey. - "FEATURE-Slow death consumes Oklahoma mining town" - Reuters - April 24, 2006
  11. ^ "Six Dead, 150 Injured After Tornado Levels Town Of Picher". KTUL. Archived from the original on 2008-05-14. Retrieved 2008-05-11.
  12. ^ Evans, Murry. - Weather: "Rebuilding unlikely in Okla. town". - Associated Press. - (c/o NBC News) - May 13, 2008
  13. ^ "Tornado Death Toll Increases In Picher". - KOTV.com - May 12, 2008
  14. ^ "Rural Water assists Picher after tornado strikes". National Rural Water Association. 2008. Archived from the original on 2011-01-02. Retrieved 2008-05-23.
  15. ^ Final graduation set for Picher-Cardin schools
  16. ^ "In brief: Vote marks end for Picher school". NewsOK.com. Retrieved December 19, 2012.
  17. ^ Sheila Stogsdill, "Picher projects its end as official municipality", Tulsa World, June 23, 2009.
  18. ^ "'Last man standing' at wake for a toxic town - CNN.com". CNN. June 30, 2009. Retrieved May 22, 2010.
  19. ^ Sheila Stogsdill, "Cardin population drops to 0 as buyout completed", Tulsa World, November 17, 2010.
  20. ^ "The Picher, Oklahoma Relocation". The Moving and Relocation Division for Oklahoma. 2009-11-03.
  21. ^ "Crews Set To Demolish Final Picher Buildings". news.yahoo.com.
  22. ^ [1]UPI, December 4, 2013.
  23. ^ Heroes Among Us: "Prescription for Kindness" - People Magazine - May 28, 2007
  24. ^ Marble, Steve (June 10, 2015). "Gary Linderman dies at 60; 'last man standing' in toxic Oklahoma town". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 12, 2015. Linderman, the owner and proprietor of the Ole Miner Pharmacy, came to be known as “the last man standing” or “Lights Out Linderman” for his pledge to stay, or at least turn off the lights if he were to leave town. Linderman died Saturday at his home due to a “sudden illness,” according to the Thomas Funeral Home in nearby Welch. He was 60.
  25. ^ "EPA Releases Final Tar Creek Strategic Plan to Improve Cleanup Progress". United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved July 25, 2020.
  26. ^ Nielsen, C. (12/05/2019). “Picher comes back to life for Christmas parade” The Miami News-Record. https://www.miamiok.com/news/20191205/picher-comes-back-to-life-for-christmas-parade
  27. ^ "US Gazetteer files: 2010, 2000, and 1990". United States Census Bureau. 2011-02-12. Retrieved 2011-04-23.
  28. ^ C. Allen Matthews and Frank D. Wood, "Picher," Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Accessed May 6, 2015.
  29. ^ Gillham, Omer; Stogsdill, Sheila (2009-05-17). "Picher school says farewell to last 11". The Oklahoman. Retrieved 2021-03-29.
  30. ^ "SCHOOL DISTRICT REFERENCE MAP (2010 CENSUS): Ottawa County, OK" (PDF). U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved 2021-03-29.
  31. ^ "The Creek Runs Red" - Independent Lens - PBS
  32. ^ "Tar Creek" - Jump the Fence Productions
  33. ^ Kennedy, Wally (January 11, 2010). "Filmmakers find stories in Picher". The Joplin Globe. Archived from the original on January 28, 2013. Retrieved January 13, 2010.
  34. ^ "Forgotten Planet". Retrieved July 5, 2014.
  35. ^ "The Watch", National Geographic Channel, April 2015
  36. ^ "Charges and affidavit in Welch cast", Tulsa World, April 23, 2018
  37. ^ Stogsdill, Sheila. "18 years later, finally answers: How investigators solved the murders of 2 Welch girls". Tulsa World. Retrieved April 23, 2018.
  38. ^ a b c "Busick sentenced in Freeman-Bible murder case". Jeff Lehr, The Joplin Globe, August 31, 2020. Retrieved December 6, 2020.
  39. ^ "Joe Don Rooney Biography". AOL. AOL Music. Archived from the original on 2009-07-08. Retrieved 2008-05-16.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]