Minings Legacy

A Scar on Kansas

13 December 2009, 12:00 a.m.

— What was once a bustling mining town on the Oklahoma-Kansas border has been transformed into a literal ghost town.

The streets of Picher, Okla., are empty.

An abandoned baseball field sits between two giant mountains of chat, the lead-polluted mining waste that has taken over the town.

The storefronts are either boarded up or their windows were left shattered by an EF4 tornado that battered the already-damaged town in May 2008.

That tornado was the least of the town’s problems.

Nearly a century of mining lead and zinc left Picher uninhabitable, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The federal government began buying out the 2,000 or so residents of the town several years ago, paying them to leave and go live somewhere else.

On Sept. 1, the city of Picher officially dissolved its charter.

But some residents refused to leave.

Jean Henson, 59, has lived in her two-bedroom mobile home on Netta Street for the last decade.

“This is my home, and as far as I’m concerned I don’t want to move again,” Henson said. “I’m going to live here and hopefully I’ll die here.”

A handful of residents remain. Their biggest concern was whether they’d continued to have running water and sewer service once the city offices shut down.

“I was fully prepared to haul water,” Henson said. “I’m an old country girl. If I have to, I’ll poop in a bucket and take it and bury it.”

Henson took the precaution of having a port-a-potty delivered to her house on Sept. 1. She ended up not needing it when the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma worked out a deal to continue offering sewer service to the few remaining Picher residents.

The majority of the residents accepted the government’s offer for their property and moved on, but not Henson.

“They offered me $20,000 for my place,” she said. “With what they offered me, I’d never be able to own again. At my age, with my health problems, I don’t feel like living in a cardboard box in a year or less.”

Henson’s advice to the residents of Treece as the federal government prepares to buyout their city: “Don’t take it,” she said.

“I’m here to stay, and I’m too doggone stubborn to get out. They’re going to have to carry me out kicking and screaming.”

Return to:
Mining’s Legacy

Video interview

Geologist Jim McCauley

Photo slideshow

"A bad way to make a living"

Video interview

Former miner Walter Wettstein

Photo gallery

A landscape transformed

Video interview

Dave Drake, EPA project manager

Photo gallery

A tale of two cities

Video interview

Picher resident Jon Finn


River City Weekly

Video interview

Treece Mayor Bill Blunk

Video interview

Senator Pat Roberts

Video interview

Representative Doug Gatewood


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