Picher Oklahoma: The Tragedy of a Ghost Town
By Danniel Parker
He’s the last one left in Picher Oklahoma, haunting the remains of a mining town that transformed into a hazardous waste site.
When Gary Linderman opens the front door to his Ole Miners Pharmacy, the post office that once stood across the street is now rubble. The few stores left standing are empty. It is unbearably quiet, except for sounds of the demolition.
Most of the houses are gone. The churches and playgrounds are empty. Stop signs and traffic lights have been removed.
“Since 2008, the town’s population has fell from 1,500 to about 50,” said Linderman.
“When I started the store in 1998, a state employee told me there were 44 businesses in the area with tax ID numbers, and now I’m the only mainstream business left,” he said.
In 2005, the government started paying families to relocate and purchased their land. In 2008, a tornado swept through, destroying half of the town and killing eight people.
In January 2011 contractors working for the Environmental Protection Agency began demolishing the condemned township.
Linderman said former locals still come to visit his pharmacy, the only business remaining in the wasteland of his hometown. They call him “Last Light Linderman,” because he will be the final person out, it’s his job to hit the switch.
The pharmacy has become a meeting place for several generations of townsfolk who have been divided and displaced to surrounding towns during the government funded relocation.
“This town was like Mayberry. People were cordial, kind and if a stranger needed help, people in Picher were always willing to help them,” said Linderman.
“Now I go outside and look around, and the post office is gone. They’ve just started demolishing the main businesses district, most of it still stands, but it’s barren,” he said
“The A&E series Life After People used Picher as an example. I think that was fitting. I live in a ghost town,” he said.
The town of Picher was once was alive, breathing, beating with the heart of the Heartland. Now all that remains are the bones of a community, scattered shrapnel that was once someone’s home. The town is being wiped off the map.
The mining stopped in the 1950’s. According to locals, Picher’s mines were called the mines that won World War 2.
Yet the toxic mountains of chat still tower in the distance. Most of the chat piles are owned by the Quapaw Indian Tribe, on Indian land.
Now the Environmental Protection Agency refers to the town as the Tar Creek Superfund Site, a hazardous waste site. The lead mines run underneath Picher, north to Treece Kansas and east to Joplin Missouri.
Angela Hughes is the Tar Creek Program manager for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. They oversee the trust that pays for toxic towns’ demolition and relocation program.
“The gravel in the chat piles iw poisoned with lead and zinc. They stand up to 20 stories high and can be easily identified on the satellite images of Google Earth,” said Hughes.
The dust from the chat piles contaminated the soil with lead, she said.
Whenever a child would eat food without washing their hands, the lead would infect their blood and travel into their brains.
According to the former high school’s principal, learning disabilities caused by lead poisoning were very common in Picher’s final generation, said Hughes.
“EPA’s long term goal for getting rid of the chat piles is 35 years,” she said.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund Program is overseeing the sale of the hazardous gravel, so it can be decontaminated and turned into safe asphalt for roads.
Don Williams is the deputy branch chief of the Tar Creek Superfund site.
“It’s easier to have people move away than have them around for the next 20 or 30 years as a private company is selling the chat,” said Williams.
Hughes said the chat that isn’t marketable will be dumped into a large toxic waste storehouse ten miles south of Picher.
There is also the problem of cave ins from subsidence. Mine shafts and caverns created sink holes in the soil, collapsing parts of the town of Picher back into the Earth.
And then there is the acidic water bubbling up from the ground.
“When the mining operations were underway, there was an aquifer there, and the mining companies were pumping water out of the aquifers to get to the ore,” said Williams.
“When the mining stopped, the aquifers pumped water into the mine caverns and eventually the water rose to the ground,” he said.
Acid contaminated water bubbled up to the surface. A rancher first reported it after finding his white show horses with legs covered in orange rust and chemical burns, said Hughes.
“The water samples, they said they were toxic,” said Martha Dallago. “A lot of people living here for many years disagree with that. A lot of them didn’t want to leave here.”
For the past five years, Dallago has snapped photographs of what’s become of her hometown, documenting each building in its final moments. Her series on Picher has recently shown at art galleries.
She stands alone as the vigil, protecting the memories from fragmenting into the poisonous windswept dust.
“I shoot photographs so I can document that the town actually existed, so people can show their children and grandchildren that they were from an actual place, not just an empty speck on an old map,” Dallago said.
Last week the bulldozers knocked down the front door of Hoppy’s pool hall, with its singing stage, miners museum and it’s 1912 Brunswick billiard tables.
“The contractors are taking down condemned movie theater right now, I’m watching them get the last few scoops of it up into their truck,” she said.
Dallago arrived early to take pictures of the theater before its destruction. Then she took after photos of the wreckage.
After the contractors were finished, she rushed over to ask them when the next building would be demolished.
“We had several generations of people here, and now they are split apart, divided into several towns, their kids won’t grow up around the people they thought they would,” Dallago said.
“A lot of people felt forced out. Our community is like a family being broken apart,” she said.
Electricity will remain, but soon the utilities will be shut off. The Quapaw Indian tribe is planning to install sewage tanks and water utilities for the families that refused the buy-out, said Hughes.
According to the EPA, the Quapaw tribe is trying to concoct a plan to salvage their homeland.
Linderman said he plans on keeping his pharmacy open until God tells him to leave.
“If I moved 10 miles farther south then I might throw people off when they want to get their medicine,” he said.