What once was a booming mining town – born overnight according to papers in the early part of the twentieth century – now is recognized only by remnants of its once robust population. Picher, Okla. sits mostly quiet these days, aside from the Hwy 69, which runs through the town and the active clean up that is taking place thanks to Quapaw Nation.
In the late 1800s, a land rush began in what is now Oklahoma. Two individuals that joined the settlers moving into the territory were George Coleman and his younger brother Levi. According to some historians, George and Levi were digging wells for individuals when one day in 1905 – on the Emma Gordon allotment in what is today, Commerce, Okla. – their drill struck something hard. Emma Gordon was Miami but had been allotted land through the Quapaw. George and Levi moved to another part of the property and the same thing happened. The brothers knew that they had found something, as lead and zinc could be seen in the holes and upon the drill. The brothers quietly began to purchase mineral rights on nearby leases. In total, over the course of two years, the brothers had obtained the mineral rights of approximately 10,000 acres. The Coleman brothers would go on to own some of the most successful mines in the area.
In 1913, a large deposit of lead was found on the property of Harry Crawfish and mining began shortly thereafter. The area around Harry Crawfish’s property was soon deemed to be filled with precious metals, and the town that grew around it would be known as Picher.
By 1920, Picher had a population of just under 10,000 and by 1926, hit its peak population of 14,252 residents. Mining in the area was heavy for the next several decades but slowed to a crawl by the 1950s as deposits dried up or were abandoned for other reasons. By 1960, Picher’s population had declined to approximately 2,500 residents.
In 2001, Keith and Michelle Herd, a couple from Picher, filed a lawsuit against eight Tar Creek mining companies. The lawsuit would be the first of many that claimed withheld research data and a delay in cleaning up the lead contaminated soil had put children in the area at risk of severe learning disabilities. It was around this time that the federal and state government became more interested in what was happening around Picher. Scientists from all over the country converged to do tests on the soil, the water…. the people.
The story made the news in every major outlet nearby and was closely monitored by those outlets in the years to come. In 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA) took 155 soil samples from an elementary school playground. The samples from Picher contained approximately 40 times the acceptable level of lead, but even at this time, there was no open discussion of closing the town. A clean up of the elementary school grounds was to begin after the school year ended.
In 2005, spurred on by the State of Oklahoma with monetary assistance from the EPA and the federal government, a buyout of Picher, Oklahoma began. $3 million dollars was initially utilized to move 52 families with small children out of the town. In total, it was estimated that it would cost $20 million to offer the 600 remaining residents in Picher, Cardin and Hockerville fair market value for their homes.
A study released in January of 2006 had shown that 300 miles of underground mine shafts posed a serious threat to homes and businesses in the area. The study concluded that as many as 9 out of 10 of the existing structures could collapse into sink holes at any given moment. Getting the residents of Picher to abandon their town was no easy task. Many had built their entire lives there, despite the dangers, Picher was home. Even with the residents hesitant, the town was being shut down around them.
For those that refused to give up their homes, the choice was taken away on May 10, 2008, when an EF-4 Tornado swept through devastating an already beaten community. In May of 2009, the last class to graduate from Picher high school walked across the stage and accepted their diploma. The room was filled with tears, no one would walk these halls as a class again; the school was closing due to lack of enrollment and funding. For the residents that remained, it was just another heartbreak in a chain of events out of their control. Despite every attempt they had made to stand strong, there was nothing they could do to stop it. They had withstood mining, bad soil and water, threats of cave-ins, and just the year prior, one of the most significant tornadoes in history, but all these events had taken their toll. By 2011, there were 20 residents that had remained and the government – considering the buyout complete – sold the toxic waste region back to the Quapaw Nation. The last business, a pharmacy known as Ole Miners Pharmacy, stayed open until 2015 when the owner Gary Linderman died of a sudden illness.
Several years have passed, and though to many Picher is a ghost town, there is still some activity, still whispers of a few stubborn residents. Even though it is recorded that Linderman was the last remaining resident, and that the town’s population is now zero, it is believed that there are a few that still live there.