Empty Picher

After some schedule juggling at work this past week, I found myself with a Saturday off for the first time in a long while.  Fatefully, this happened as I read an article about the abandoned mining town of Picher, Oklahoma and a random dinner engagement with my friends Leah and Darci.  All of these happenings added up to a relatively impromptu Saturday on the road with my fellow photographer friend Darci and a great opportunity to take my new camera out for a spin.

Like my father before me, I wanted to get on the road as early as possible.  I’m not used to dealing with delays like “I’m fixing my hair” but I’m a patient man.  We set out north on the Will Rogers Turnpike at about 9:30 AM on Saturday, full of excitement and expectations.  Due to massive amounts of mining, toxic lead contamination, and a kicker of a 2008 F4 tornado the town was evacuated and abandoned a few years ago.  Many of the structures have been torn down, and there’s still light traffic on the highway that runs through the old town center, but the grounds of Picher is an eerie sight.  Roads to nowhere.  Concrete pads overgrown with weeds, old tile peeling up in the sunlight.  Post-apocalyptic spray-painted warnings like ‘KEEP OUT’ on buildings that seem in decent shape, as well as many dilapidated structures litter the old town footprint.

As you approach the town, you see tall mountains of gravel, or ‘chat’, left over from the mining operations.  Some of these mounds sidle right up to previously residential neighborhoods.  A water tower looms over the skeletal remains of the town, proudly proclaiming cityhood since 1918.  In fact, due to the mining operations, Picher produced over half of the lead and zinc used in World War I and was also a big contributor to World War II ammunition manufacture.  While walking the foundations of the old commercial district, I found an old Matchbox car, crushed and full of dirt.  “How appropriate,” I thought.  How many hopes and dreams died here?  I also came across a fire hydrant with a hose still attached, as if the call to evacuate came amidst an emergency and people had to pick up and go with haste.

Once Darci and I had sufficiently explored, we set out westward.  Driving old Oklahoma and Kansas highways, we found ourselves in Sedan, KS…evidently the home of the World’s Longest Yellow-Brick Road.  We parked downtown and looked at the historic storefronts, enjoying the last bit of warmth of the afternoon sun.  Due south of Sedan, not far across the state line, we drove to Pawhuska, my father’s hometown.  I hadn’t been back since his grave marker had been completed and placed.  I stopped to pay my respects.  There’s something so final about words etched in stone.  The quiet time on the hillside was interrupted by a woman and several children with toys and Cheetos.

We cruised back into Tulsa at about 5:30.  It was a fantastic day trip and reminded me how much I missed the open road.  I need to do more research and find other close locations that I can stop by and capture.

About rhysfunk

Rhys Martin was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1981. In 2009, he sold everything he owned and left the country, living out of a backpack for ten months. He discovered a passion for photography while traveling throughout Southeast Asia and Europe. After returning home, he looked at his home town and Oklahoma heritage with fresh eyes. When he began to explore his home state, Rhys turned his attention to historic Route 66. As he became familiar with the iconic highway, he began to truly appreciate Oklahoma’s place along the Mother Road. He has traveled all 2,400 miles of Route 66, from Chicago to Los Angeles. He has also driven many miles on rural Oklahoma highways to explore the fading Main Streets of our small towns. Rhys has a desire to find and share the unique qualities of the Sooner State with the rest of the world. Cloudless Lens Photography has been featured in several publications including This Land, Route 66 Magazine, Nimrod Journal, Inbound Asia Magazine, The Oklahoman, and the Tulsa World. Rhys loves to connect with people and share his experiences; ask him about enjoyable day trips from Tulsa, locations along Route 66, and good diners or burger joints along the way.
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