Spending the Night in a Ghost Town

I grew up in a small town in Connecticut, so "normal" for me means that people live in houses with foundations, the grocery store is only about 10 minuets away, you can see your neighbor's house, you can drink the water from the tap... but thats not the case everywhere. And I don't mean to sound naive, I have seen how people live in the west bank of Cairo and I've seen families working on farms along the Nile River. I have walked the streets of several Chinese cities as well as had supper with a family that worked on a farm in the countryside of southern China. Yet I'm still always amazed by the country I call home. I never imagined it could be so incredibly different depending on where you look, and how you look at it.

One of the most interesting places I've been is a ghost town called Picher, Oklahoma. 

In the early 1900's this town was a thriving mining town for lead and zinc, with the population peaking at nearly 15,000 in the 20's. Picher was the leading producer in lead in zinc in the tri state area, about half of the lead and zinc used in World War I came from this district. All this prosperity would come to an end in 1967 when production at the mine, including the water pumps, stopped. In the 80's the combination of the risks of water contamination, cave-ins, and other hazards, as well as a study that found more than a third of the children of Picher had severe lead poisoning, forced the government to declare Picher as part of the Tar Creek Superfund Site. This called for a forced evacuation and buy outs by the EPA. This included Picher, and the satellite towns that had similar conditions. In 2006 an EF4 tonando ripped through the nearly deserted towns to accelerate the decline, and finally in 2009 the state of Oklahoma disincorporated Picher as a town. Now the "official" population is 0, but there are reports of a handful of people still living inside this superfund site.

waking up to the frost. An enormous pile of mining waste can be seen to the left. 

waking up to the frost. An enormous pile of mining waste can be seen to the left. 

Driving through Picher was unreal. There are enormous piles of mining waste on old neighborhood streets. The google earth view of this area is surreal to say the least. Unfortunately we arrived in town right as the sun was setting so we did not get a chance to see many of the remaining buildings we were hoping to, so we decided find a quiet space to park the camper-van and spend the night so we could shoot early in the morning. 

We drove through the grid pattern neighborhood streets until we were left with a quiet corner. The paved roads were narrow and cracked, and the plots of land where houses once stood were now patches of brittle and dry brush. We were sure we weren't supposed to be here so we hid ourselves away, locked the doors, and fell asleep to the sounds of coyotes howling and owls singing in the dark.

The next morning we woke up to a perfectly sparkly layer of frost everywhere and clouds of low hanging fog that danced around the empty streets. The sun was just rising and it was freezing. We took photos on the decaying pavement roads until the frost started to melt. We continued to drive around until we accidentally stumbled onto an area of mining waste. It started off by just looking like a place people went to dump garbage, but then we drove further until we realized we were in the middle of a huge mountain of waste. We spent a few moments exploring and taking photos. The waste looked like pale, grey-ish dirt with fine bits of rocks. We didn't know if it was contaminated or not... so we just assumed it was. Within this mound there were a few structures made from rusted metal and concrete. After exploring this area we drove back onto the silent streets and found a few more structures, like a dilapidated church as well as some large mining equipment. There were soccer fields still adored with goalie nets (the actual nets were long gone) and the main street still had some active municipal buildings and equipment; main street was even decorated for the upcoming holiday. 

We realized it was around noon so we decided to hit the road and continue our journey west. Like most places I have been, I wish I was able to spend more time exploring. 

More to come,