A Town No Stranger To Trouble

Tuesday, May 13th 2008, 5:51 pm
By: News On 6

Some people believe the latest chapter in Picher's 93 year history is the final blow to a town that has slowly been fading away for years.  News On 6 anchor Terry Hood takes a look back at what is truly a unique tale.

From the vast mines that supplied bullets to thousands of servicemen, to an environmental disaster, and now lives shattered by a storm, Picher is no stranger to sorrow.

Picher residents come face to face with yet another challenge. This one brought by the deadly winds of an EF 4 tornado.  A challenge is what the residents know all too well.

The town got its start in 1915. It was founded by the Picher Mining Company after large amounts of lead and zinc were found in northeast Oklahoma. From the prairies of the Quapaw nation, Picher grew into a town of 16,000 before World War II.  Some 300 miles of caverns were dug under the Oklahoma soil as the mining operation became a source of pride.

But the years of mining took their toll.  First, came the cave-ins. One in 1967 was as big as a football field.

The mines eventually closed in the 1970's, but other problems were beginning to surface.

The area's watershed had become contaminated by the heavy metals exposed by the mines.  Picher's children were the first to feel the effects of lead poisoning, reaching levels that were ten times more than other children across the state.

"What we see here is behavioral problems and learning difficulties," said Susan Waldron of the Ottawa County Health Department in 2001.

One of the first plans was to replace the residents' soil and dirt.   When that failed, the government began looking to move everyone and close the town.  The buyout became official three months before Picher's neighborhoods went from looking like so many others across the state, to a disaster area where lives have been turned inside-out.

According to the Picher Housing Authority, 294 residents have accepted the buyout with the average check for each homeowner of a little more than $62,000.

A handful of people have rejected the buyout and some residents still feel the government should keep its hands off Picher.