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The sun sets over an empty neighborhood in Picher, Okla., a nearly deserted town that once had a population of over 14,000 people in the 1920s, when it was the world's largest producer of zinc and lead. At left and in the foreground are some of the area's many 'chat piles'- heaps of gravelly mine waste. High levels of lead in schoolchildren drove some locals to seek relocation assistance from the government and in 2006, risk of collapsing mines led the federal government to offer property buyouts.
A handful of Picher's commercial buildings remain standing alongside U.S. Route 69.
An historical image shows miners operating a 35-foot jumbo drill in a cavern below Picher.
'If it wasn't for the tornado I wouldn't have left,' said Kathy Cox, 73, standing at the site of her former home in Picher, where she raised five kids. Thinking that risk from lead and mine collapse was overblown, Cox said she turned down a buyout offer of $8000. Behind Cox is the chat pile where her children played. 'We used to have weenie roasts up there. Kids would slide down on boards. It didn't kill 'em none.' Cox survived the EF4 tornado that swept through Picher in 2008, but it destroyed her home and prompted her to leave town along with most of the remaining residents.
A chimney remains standing above an empty slab on the north side of Picher.
Karen Harvey, 53, waits for her medication at the Ole Miners Pharmacy. She went on disability two years ago, suffering from anxiety, respiratory problems and a thyroid condition. Harvey lived in Picher from 1960 to 2002, and as a kid she played on chat piles and swam in mill ponds. 'We'd go swimming in them and our hair would turn orange and it wouldn't wash out,' she said. At age 18 she had surgery to correct bone growth in her ears that interfered with hearing. Noting that she's also dyslexic and was recently tested with an I.Q. of 65, she said she's starting to wonder if her childhood in Picher contributed to her health problems. 'I don't know if that has something to do with it or not,' she said, 'I'm just figuring it out as I get older.'
Weeds climb over the porch of the gutted Picher Mining Museum.
'This is home,' said Roberta Blevins, 43, one of fewer than 10 people still living in Picher. Blevins and her husband moved into the town of Picher nine years ago after a tree fell on their home in nearby Douthat, Okla., killing their six-year-old daughter. Trying to protect her then-12-year-old son, she didn't want to uproot him from the school he was already happily attending in Picher. Seeing her struggle to find a place to live in the area, some community members in Picher helped arrange a land swap and a good deal on a trailer near the school, she said. 'Picher is the kind of community that when something happens to one of their own, people come together and help. They'll do what they can do.'
Floor tiles curl up on an empty slab in Picher.
An old 'dog house,' where miners would change clothes after work, stands in central Picher. In 1927, according to local history buff Ed Keheley, 40% of miners in Picher had silicosis, a lung condition caused by dust inhalation, and in 1934 the town had the highest rate of tuberculosis in the country.
'I painted these walls,' said David Ray, 62, standing in the pool hall his dad Hoppy operated in Picher from 1963 to 2009. Ray grew up in Picher and remembers playing with lead as a child: 'It was everywhere. It was heavy and it looked neat and it had a tangy taste. When I was a kid I'd put lead in a coffee grinder. And put it all over myself. We'd swim in cave-ins that were filled with water.' Ray wonders if his school troubles (his two weeks in college were 'the most embarrassing and humiliating experience of my life') and health problems (cataracts starting at age 30, and now chronic kidney disorder) are connected to his childhood lead exposure.
Ground water from the Boone Aquifer flows into Tar Creek after emerging rust-colored and carrying heavy metals from a collapsed mine and test holes in Picher. The Tar Creek Superfund site was designated in 1983.
John Sparkman spent 18 years on the school board in Picher, and led the push among locals to get a government buyout. He said that after numerous students showed learning disabilities, 'We implemented every kind of program we could, but there was no end in sight. It's not that every kid is affected, but we are responsible for those who are.'
A classroom sits empty at Picher Cardin High School.
Ed Keheley, 71, stands near a collapsed mine shaft in an abandoned neighborhood in Picher. Keheley, a retired nuclear engineer who is writing a history of mining in Picher, says there are more than 100 shafts in town and 1203 shafts in the area. This one had already closed by 1926, when an illegal distillery was discovered inside it with 40,000 gallons of whiskey. Keheley says it was the largest illegal still raided during Prohibition. Born in Flippin, Ark., Keheley moved to Picher at age one, when his father came to work in the mines. The family moved to California when Ed was 14 as mining operations were declining. 'I can't think of a better place to have been raised,' he said of the close-knit community, 'there was no upper class here, so everybody was in a level playing field.' He moved back to the region after retiring and took up the cause of people affected by lead poisoning, helping to advocate for the buyout.
Tires float with other junk in a pond formed by a collapsed mine outside Picher. Before the ground at this spot collapsed into the cavern below, leaving a 250-foot wide hole, there were three mine shafts visible at the surface, each with a five-by-seven-foot opening. The threat of more such collapses eventually prompted the government to offer buyouts to Picher residents.
Steps lead to an empty slab below the Premier chat pile.
Sixty-five feet below Picher Cardin High School's gorilla statue is an old mining cavern. It's 106 feet tall, 300 feet in diameter and is supported by a single 18-foot diameter concrete pillar – a 'toothpick' according to Ed Keheley – that was poured in 1939.
Because it's listed in the National Register of Historic Places, this church in Picher escaped the demolition fate of many of the town's structures.
A cross stands near an empty slab in PIcher.