Poison Water: How Zinc and Lead Closed a Town+

Authored by Cailin Cortner

An article from The Daily Oklahoman about Picher, OK, and the debate on the town’s relocation from 2000. The article was found in the Tar Creek Superfund Repository in the Miami Public Library Basement.

Picher, Oklahoma, was once one of the world’s most prominent lead and zinc mining sites until the last of the mines shut down in 1970 (“The Creek Runs Red” 2007). However, after years of mining, waste accumulated and began to pollute the nearby land and rivers. Picher used to be a large town full of life, home to multiple movie theatres, bars, and businesses. Now, the town stands abandoned with chat piles reaching to the sky, a shell of the life that used to live there. 

Lead and zinc waste turned the water in the nearby water sources red. Children and adults started showing the effects of high exposure to lead, and the citizens’ health began to suffer. The EPA declared the area a Superfund Site in 1980 and began to assess the waste in the 1990s (Buck 2017). The government decided to intercede in 2005 and began offering buyouts to the citizens of Picher, encouraging them to move from the toxic area. Local Genealogy Librarian, Barbara Becker, recalled this time. “It was a strange time. Some people wanted to leave and took the money, and others were diehards and wanted to stay even with the old mines poisoning the water and everything falling in around them” (Barbara Becker, personal communication, October 1, 2021).

Toxins were not the only thing the residents of Picher had to worry over. Sinkholes caused by the underground mines began to open all over town. In 2006, a study was completed by the Army Corps of Engineers. It showed that nine out of ten buildings within the mining area were vulnerable to collapse (Shepherd 2014). This danger spurred more people to evacuate the town. Though they tried to focus on relocation, the town was ultimately destroyed in 2008 after an EF4 Tornado demolished what little was left of the town (Duhon 2008). The town was officially declared closed by the State of Oklahoma in September of 2009 (Ellis 2020). When the Superfund expired in 2011, the government sold Picher to the Quapaw Indian Nation, and by 2015 the last remaining resident of Picher, Oklahoma, had passed away (Buck 2017).

Cyaira Harvey, Library Assistant at the nearby Miami Public Library, shared, “Even with no utilities or anything, there is still a Christmas Parade every year in Picher, and there are even people setting up in some of the houses again (Cyaira Harvey, personal communication, October 1, 2021). Despite the destruction and desolation, people travel to see Picher and its chat piles, and the locals return home for the Christmas parade (Ellis 2020). Celebrating the town is important to former residents of Picher. It is a way to give back to those that lost their homes and let them know they are not forgotten (Cyaira Harvey, personal communication, October 1, 2021).  

Today Picher is nothing but abandoned streets and mountains of chat. However, many people relive and research the past by accessing the town’s history at the nearby Miami Public Library. Without the history being kept by the Genealogy Department within the library, many personal accounts of Picher could be lost or forgotten. The library is home to the Tar Creek Superfund Repository. All articles, yearbooks, and other hand-written information regarding the history of Picher are available for those seeking to learn of the town’s past.

The annual Christmas parade and consistent visitors showcase the legacy Picher has left on the Ottawa County community. This reflects the Vincentian tradition to “foster a world view and further efforts toward global harmony and development by creating an atmosphere in which all may imbibe and embody the spirit of compassionate concern for others” (St. John’s University 2015). Celebrating the town’s history, giving back to that memory each year with the parade, and remembering those affected by the town’s closure are a prominent part of the Ottawa County culture in Oklahoma.  


Buck, Stephanie. 2017. “The Oklahoma Town That Produced Most of WWI’s Bullets Is Now a Poison Graveyard.” Medium. August 9, 2017. https://timeline.com/picher-oklahoma-lead-toxic-186e5595232b.

Duhon, Krista. 2008. “President declares disaster.” Miami News-Record (OK), May 15, 2008. NewsBank: America’s News. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=NewsBank&docref=news/120B6DFCD8745488.

Ellis, Jim. 2020. “Picher comes to life again for Christmas parade.” Miami News-Record (OK), November 25, 2020. NewsBank: America’s News. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=NewsBank&docref=news/17F046C84CF08000.

St. John’s University. 2015. “Our Mission.” https://www.stjohns.edu/about/history-and-facts/our-mission.

Stogsdill, Sheila. 2000. “Picher City Council Again Backs Off January Vote On Relocating Town.” Daily Oklahoman, December 6, 2000.

Shepherd, Dan. 2014. “Last Residents of Picher, Oklahoma Won’t Give Up the Ghost (Town).” NBC News. April 26, 2014. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/investigations/last-residents-picher-oklahoma-won-t-give-ghost-town-n89611.

Vision Maker Media. 2007. “The Creek Runs Red.” AmericanArchive.org. Video, 57:04. http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-508-bc3st7fh7m.  

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