Sunday, March 15, 2009

Death of a Midwestern Town: Photo Essay of Picher, Oklahoma

Mike Spivey (lefturn99 on Flickr) and I led a group of photographers from the Tulsa Digital Photography Group up to the far northeastern corner of Oklahoma to the old towns of Picher and Cardin, Oklahoma and Treese, Kansas. These small towns used to skirt the edges of the Eagle-Picher Zinc Mine, one of the largest zinc mines ever in the US.

One of the byproducts of the zinc mine was lead. When a mine is in production, the single largest burden to its profitability is the extraction of the useless soil, rock and minerals that are worthless. The gravel that is left over is referred to as chat or tailings and this material starts to build up over time. The entire area is surrounded by millions of tons of chat, some piles as large as small mountains. Low lying swampy areas were filled in with the chat, roads and driveways were paved using the chat and it was mixed with concrete for construction projects. Unfortunately for the residents this chat is heavily laced with lead.

In the 1970s high lead levels were discovered in the blood streams of the residents after the rates of kidney failures and birth defects went beyond the national percentages. It was determined that the mountains of chat was responsible for the high levels of lead in the environment, and worse, in Tar Creek and the local water supply. After much deliberation and the usual failures by the Federal Government to adequately address the issue with the corporation, the Eagle-Picher Mining Company declared bankruptcy and the mine was closed. This sounded the death knell for the surrounding area.

After more deliberation, the entire area was declared a Superfund site and the contaminated mine and surrounding chat piles were seized by the government. Residents were offered money for their property and homes and are still to this day being moved from the area. The local school is closed, very few businesses remain, and only a few residents stubbornly hang on in the area either waiting to be bought out or choosing to stay. Everywhere you look are the remains of a place where people used to live, where kids played baseball and softball, where people made the livelihood and the ever present mountians of chat.

As if to add to their punishment, a tornado ripped through Picher late last summer. The deadly EF-4 rated storm killed six and injured 150 and destroyed several neighborhoods as it cut a deadly path through the small town and drifted off just north of Quapaw, Oklahoma and into Missouri.

Many of the homes and buildings in the area are marked for lead abatement (cleaning) and demolition and many have already been cleared off leaving the neighborhoods with curious empty areas where concrete slabs, driveways and the occasional storm cellar remain to demark where someone's home used to stand. The areas where the tornado went through are easy to spot even after the wrecked houses where bulldozed and burned. Trees without limbs still stand like silent guardians over the huge swath cut the deadly storm on the north side of State Highway 69.

The images I took at Picher were deliberately shot to describe the sense of looming depression that has settled on the area like a damp blanket. Trash, debris and the left over detritus of human beings is still scattered all over the area as it is slowly being consumed by weeds and trees. Part of the processing I did on these images was to convert them to black and white as I think this forces the eye to see the true lack of color that pervades the area. Everything there is gray, covered in a thin film of ashy chat dust and choked with weeds and windblown trash stuck in the fence lines. All around are the mountains of chat to ever remind the visitor why this town was there and what caused its eventual demise.

Please visit my Picher, Oklahoma Flickr gallery at

Also, please visit the TDPG members galleries and see their vision of the area...

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