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Documenting the Disappearance of America’s Most Toxic Ghost Town

Starting in 2008, following a devastating tornado, Todd Stewart has photographed the toxic ruins of Picher, Oklahoma, a mining community turned ghost town.

Todd Stewart, “Chat Pile” (2008) (courtesy the artist)

Picher is often cited as the most toxic town in the United States. Yet every year, its identity as a town is eroding. A May 10, 2008 EF4 tornado wrecked more than 100 homes and killed six in its corner of northeastern Oklahoma, scattering bits of buildings and possessions at the base of the chat piles. These hills of chat, a fine gravel byproduct of lead and zinc mining, are a toxic relic of the industry that polluted the community’s earth and waters for decades in the early 20th century. Underground tunnels periodically open into gaping sinkholes. Following a mandatory evacuation and buyouts, spurred by its 1980 designation by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of the Tar Creek Superfund Site, its homes are boarded up, its mining museum is lost to arson, and its schools are abandoned.

“I first visited Picher in 2008, shortly after the tornado,” photographer Todd Stewart told Hyperallergic. “The tornado had leveled houses in a significant part of the town, leaving only building foundations and pavement still in place.”

He saw the ground strewn with personal objects, like books, photographs, toys, keepsakes, and letters. “Although most of the town’s residents had left, indications of their lives were everywhere,” he said. “I realized that this would not be the case forever. I knew that eventually this place would become a landscape with little physical evidence of what had been before.”

Todd Stewart, “Chat Pile and Tornado Debris” (August 2008) (courtesy the artist)
Installation view of Picher, Oklahoma: Catastrophe, Memory, and Trauma (photo by Michael S. Bendure/Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art)

From 2008 to 2017, he kept returning. Last year, Stewart published his series on Picher in a monograph released by the University of Oklahoma Press. With Alison Fields, who contributed essays to the book, Stewart curated Picher, Oklahoma: Catastrophe, Memory, and Trauma, which is now on view at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma (OU) in Norman. Stewart is an OU associate professor of art, technology, and culture, and Fields is a professor of art of the American West and associate professor of art history.

“During the next few years, each time I returned to Picher I found less and less remaining, the landscape increasingly enveloping everything left behind,” Stewart stated. “Picher was in the process of disappearing, of slipping into non-existence.”

The exhibition combines Stewart’s photographs with salvaged artifacts, such as a worn church fan decorated with an image of Jesus and a headless ceramic statue that may have once graced a mantle. It was never a huge metropolis — Picher’s boomtown population peaked in the 1920s at just over 14,000 — but it was a major contributor to American defense in both world wars, especially in the production of bullets. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, over 50% of the lead and zinc metal used in World War I “came from the Picher Field.”

As is often the case, after the companies departed in the 1960s and ’70s, leaving the environment of the Tri-State Mining District that stretched into Kansas and Missouri depleted of its resources, the economy of the area never recovered. By 1973, contaminated water was seeping from the 1,400 mineshafts below Picher. Information about the dangers of the chat piles was slow to be shared with residents, whose children were allowed to play in sandboxes of the powdered ore, and driveways and foundations for homes were poured with the mine tailings. Time magazine reported in 2004 that over the previous decade, “up to 38% of local children have had high levels of lead in their blood.”

Todd Stewart, “Blue Boy” (courtesy the artist)
Todd Stewart, “Storefronts, Connell Avenue” (2010) (courtesy the artist)

In a 1983 article for the Oklahoman, Richard E. Meyer described one day when the acid water, tinged an ominous red, spilled out from the mines across a man’s ranch:

It washed around the ankles of his purebred Arabian horses, stained the ends of their tails and splashed against their roan-and-tan bellies when they ran. Their hides turned orange. The hair burned off their legs. They developed open sores. Not far away, water gurgled out of another hole in the ground. Then it surged from another. And another. It belched from a mine shaft and gushed out of an old cave-in. It splashed down ditches and gullies and into a stream called Tar Creek. It turned the stream blood red, and it killed the fish.

As the Tulsa World reported in 2014, a few residents linger in Picher, even after it was officially unincorporated as a town. This year, the EPA awarded almost $5 million to the Quapaw Tribe, whose territory stretches over the Superfund site, for cleanup. Still, the land is so badly scarred that it will never completely recover.

In his photography, Stewart is interested in how landscapes can be “embedded with memory and history — that personal, cultural, and historical narrative is what defines place.” Quiet photographs of weathered clothes and found snapshots contrast with eerie images of the empty streets and tornado-wrecked structures that were never rebuilt. The poisoning of Picher may seem like a local story and, indeed, remains little known on a national level. Yet the state of Oklahoma continues to practice environmentally hazardous extraction, including fracking for gas. And in the United States, the promotion of toxic industry — even if it results in the destruction of the very place it is supporting — endures.

“We seem to make the same mistakes over and over again,” Stewart said. “When I began this project, I did not realize how relevant the story would be in 2017. With the election of Donald Trump, it is clear that economic and political interests will continue to be prioritized over environmental and other societal concerns for some time to come. Picher is evidence of the consequences of such hubris, and it is important that its complicated legacy not be forgotten.”

Todd Stewart, “Tar Creek below Contamination Area” (May 2014) (courtesy the artist)
Todd Stewart, “Sinkhole” (May 2014) (courtesy the artist)
Todd Stewart, “House Destroyed by Tornado” (June 2008) (courtesy the artist)
Todd Stewart, “Cardboard Fan, Front” (courtesy the artist)
Todd Stewart, “Connell Avenue” (January 2008) (courtesy the artist)
Todd Stewart, “Postcards” (courtesy the artist)
Todd Stewart, “Lytle Creek” (2008) (courtesy the artist)
Installation view of Picher, Oklahoma: Catastrophe, Memory, and Trauma (photo by Michael S. Bendure/Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art)

Picher, Oklahoma: Catastrophe, Memory, and Trauma continues through September 10 at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art (University of Oklahoma, 555 Elm Avenue, Norman, Oklahoma).

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