These are scenes from a town marking its final days: A dust-coated General Electric wall clock sits in a store window, its hands stopped at 2:20. Dogs and cats roam Main Street, searching for scraps of food.
Hoppy’s pool hall is one of the last places still open. The thrift store is gone; so is the post office. The schools closed in July, and City Hall will be shuttered by September. Most of the traffic through Picher comes from the dump trucks hauling tons of lead waste.
Utilities to end
The Environmental Protection Agency recently warned those who stay behind that the water will eventually be shut off.
"Some people still just don’t believe it,” said Larry Roberts, operations manager of the federal fund that helps families move out of lead-polluted communities. "I guess when the taps are shut off, they’ll realize the situation they’re in.”
Picher is probably among the bleakest, most contaminated spots in one of the biggest Superfund cleanup sites in the country, a 40-square-mile expanse of former lead- and zinc-mining towns that extends into Missouri and Kansas. Within that zone, the creek spews orange from pollution, mine cave-ins and sinkholes threaten, and lead dust has fouled nearly everything.
At the pool hall, Ray recalled the glory days in Picher before the mines closed nearly 40 years ago: The football game in which Picher’s broad-shouldered mining boys demolished a neighboring town’s team 115-0. The one-room houses on Fourth Street that made up the red-light district. The saloons with names like the Bloody Knuckle.
The pool hall doubles as a museum. Hardhats line the walls, and hunks of calcite, dolomite and galena hewn from the town’s mines are displayed in a glass case as if they were championship trophies.
"This is Dad’s life,” said his son, who is waiting to be bought out. "This is the heart and soul of who he is.”