Monday, July 9, 2012

Picher, Oklahoma

 Picher, OK
home of the Gorillas since 1918

I've heard of them, but I've never seen a ghost truck before, that is, until last week in Picher, OK. We were cruising down the main road, past abandoned buildings, when out of nowhere a large diesel truck came careening towards us, kicking up dust. The cab was high off the ground, the windows tinted; even so, we could see that no one was behind the wheel. On the side of the road, chat piles spread out for miles, and in the distance, a ghost fire was burning.

(photo credit:

Ghosts aren't unusual for this area. Once, close to here, Mary saw a man with a green face walking by the side of the road. Spook lights (mysterious floating orbs) haunt the woods. But the condemned town of Picher is particularly scary; not for its ghosts, but for what happens when industry destroys the environment with mining, in this case, lead. The town which lies between Miama (pronounced My-a-muh), OK and Baxter Springs, KS, is virtually deserted. On Quapaw Tribal land, the town became the center of lead-zinc mining in the early 1900s. In 1981, the EPA declared Picher a Superfund site, the most toxic in the US.

Main Street

Good citizen Gary Linderman was the only pharmacist in town. When the government offered to buy everyone out in 2006, Linderman refused. Who else would help the 40 or so remaining residents when they got sick, he asked, so he stayed on. The Ole' Miners Pharmacy is a neat little shop, with shelves full of prescriptions and some old timey benches for sitting. People come from miles away, picking up scripts, wanting to talk. No one mentions the empty streets outside, the collapsed buildings, the dust in the air.

Gary Linderman

It's eerie walking here, like on a deserted beach, but you're in a land-locked state, so maybe a better analogy would be the moon, you're walking on the moon.

I didn't want to come here with the kids and all that dust kicking around, but Tom wanted to see it. Tom's mom's family grew up next to chat piles outside their home in Miama, and the siblings who didn't die of other causes, breathed in the dust and got cancer; some have died, some still standing.  He didn't say so outright, but I figured, as part of family history, Tom wanted to show the kids this ruin of hell.

The EPA wanted the town cleared because of the network of underground mines threatening collapse, but the real tragedy here is lead, how it seeped into the water, into the ground, into people's blood and tissues. A third of the children had elevated levels of lead, and that was enough for most people to get out of dodge. The Quapaw tribe hopes to reclaim this land as wetlands after the last person standing gives up the ghost... or moves on.

(The Creek Runs Red, an Independent Lens documentary, tells a more complete story of the tragedy of Picher.)


  1. powerful description... love the pharmacist in that woebegone place... what an eerie journey...

    1. This pharmacist seemed especially devoted; What do you think, would your dad have felt obligated to stay?

  2. Qupaw could have it along with their town of Quapaw as well. I grew up here and the town sucked then as it does now. Don't see the big deal about wanting to save something that was long dead before I was born.
    Joey Parker

    1. Joey, you have a point. Thanks for weighing in. I know if I'd grown up there, I'd try to head someplace else. Hope you were able to move on....