Welcome to Picher Oklahoma or as Wired Magazine calls it, "America's Most Toxic Town." During the early 1900's, Picher was the leading producer of mined zinc and lead. In fact, nearly 50% of all the lead and zinc metal used in the first World War came from Picher. As you can imagine, the process of mining these materials was not heavily restricted in those days and the dangerous after effects soon became apparent. First, there were the sink holes which spawned some geological studies of the area. These studies showed that the subsurface of the ground on which the town was built was very unstable. That study led to an investigation of the town's water supply and those results were even more catastrophic. The groundwater was found to have been contaminated with zinc and lead. And not only was the water affected, but the air was also contaminated, due to the huge piles of mining waste (chat piles) that dominated the landscape of the town. This prompted an immediate response from the US Government to buy out the area, label it a superfund site and relocate the inhabitants. A few stayed behind, but most of the town was vacated. In 2006, the school was closed permanently and in 2008, the town was hit by an F4 tornado that leveled a good portion of the buildings.
In essence, Picher is a modern day ghost town. Walking the streets gives you an eerie, yet inquisitive feeling. You just can't help but wonder about the people that used to live here, how they handled having to move and if they were affected by the toxicity. Many of the homes looked as though their occupants had simply gotten up and left. I'll never forget the time that Jason Hudson and I ventured into the back of one of the houses and ended up in the town's funeral parlor. (chills) There was also the time that Brandon Horner decided to see if the fire extinguisher in the abandoned diner still worked. (it did) And yes, I actually did drive the Novomobile to the very top of one of the toxic chat piles. I had read that it was prolonged exposure that was dangerous so walking about for a few hours shouldn't have been any big deal. Still, there was always a "tickle in my throat" as explored the town. I could blame that on the lead poison or the excitement of being in a real, genuine ghost town. Trips like this always start out with the need to get away, exercise creativity and explore the world around. In this case, our little day trip turned into a series of day trips and one very memorable history lesson.