Mining for Picher
Fruits of the earth build up a town — and then break it, and its residents, apart.
By John David Sutter
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
PICHER — Before all of this, the site of one of the nation's oldest and most severe environmental tragedies was just a swath of fertile prairie with a deep-hidden secret.
More than 300 million years ago — before the dinosaurs walked the earth and long before the government pledged to pay residents to flee — cracks made room for the zinc and lead to arrive.
Heat and pressure from the core of the earth ripped and cracked ancient rocks, making room for the heavy metals to ooze into the void deep in the ground of northeastern Oklahoma.
These fruits of the earth sat untouched until the early 1900s.
Then, the treasure hunt began.
Within 20 years, a mining field centered on the town of Picher was the largest zinc and lead producer in the world. The minerals were used for bullets and guns in two world wars. Baseball great Mickey Mantle's father worked the mines.
But opening and selling the earth came with costs.
The scramble to tunnel downward for more metals left the present-day towns of Picher, Cardin and Hockerville teetering on brittle, hollow ground. Residents live in the shadows of 100-foot mountains of toxic mine waste. The probability that homes and businesses could sink into the maze of abandoned mines is so high that the federal government is in the process of paying people to get out.
Property valuation started this month, and 54 residences had been appraised as of Friday. Cinnabar Service Co. was hired by the state to do the appraisals.
Now, some think maybe Picher was undermined from the very beginning.
If the ore never had been discovered, "I don't know whether it would have been better off or not," said Isaac "Zeak" Rhoades, an 80-year-old former miner who said he made a good living working underground.
"But it would have been a lot safer. When I was a kid, everything was a meadow."
A wagon carrying a group of ore prospectors down dirt roads to Missouri got its wheels stuck in the Oklahoma mud one day in 1914. While the group waited, someone decided, maybe out of boredom, to search the ground for minerals.
The mud-stuck troupe bored a hole though a dullish gray shale crust until dark lead and zinc sparkled in the sun.
The group hit jackpot, at least as the mining companies tell the tale.
Within a year of the reported discovery, heavy mining commenced. Refining of the metals initially took place at a site called Whitebird Mill.
Town in flux
Soon, a fiercely independent town of 20,000 people wrapped itself around 100-foot-tall piles of gravel mine waste that grew from the ore mills.
Locals called them "chat piles." They are made of crushed rock left behind after most of the lead and zinc are removed.
Mining companies owned land in town. And according to leasing agreements, tenants would have to move their homes within 30 days if the company wanted to mine right through a neighborhood.
Rhoades' childhood home was bulldozed because of the policy.
Some families lived in tents. Others nailed together scrap metal boxes to form shelter. Or they built wood frames on top of bare rock and then nailed tarpaper to the outside to keep stiff winds and rains out.
In Rhoades' first house as an adult, he and his wife, Peggy, made end tables out of empty dynamite boxes.
Others used the scrap boxes for walls.
They were stackable and, perhaps more importantly, easy to move on a moment's notice.
In the 1940s, Rhoades' workday in the mines started at 7:30 a.m. with a free-falling plunge toward the center of the earth.
In a nearly uncontrolled fall, workers were dropped four at a time down 350-foot mine shafts in an open-air iron bucket.
The bucket, or "can," also was used to collect rocks. It dangled at the end of a cable and fell at the speed of gravity until an engine slowed its descent near the mine floor.
The plummet killed or maimed many miners, said Ed Keheley, vice president of the Picher Mining Museum. The technique was designed to save time and labor costs.
Life underground was a "whole new world," Rhoades said.
"It was dark, dark," he said. "If you had no lights, you couldn't see nothing. You couldn't see your hand."
Dark. Damp. Dripping. The mines, according to Rhoades, operated on laws of climate and physics foreign to surface life. The temperature was a cool 65 degrees all year. The air was moist. Water fell from the ceiling sometimes 100 feet above. But any sound the drips made was overpowered by the cacophony of jackhammers, drills and dynamite.
A veritable city existed underground, with mules and trucks to cart cans of ore down railroad tracks.
One of Rhoades' jobs was to blast away new tunnels.
He drilled holes in the rock walls and then set the dynamite.
In doing so, he cleared metals he may have carried as guns or bullets while stationed in the Pacific during World War II.
At the end of the day, workers lit all of the explosives in one big succession. The blasts thundered through the caves, pushing the air so hard and fast that it would ruffle your clothes, Rhoades said.
During the explosions, Rhoades waited in line for the can to whisk him back up to the piercing sunlight on the surface.
Precious metals near Picher were mixed in with a lot of worthless rock.
That meant the caves had to be bigger and technology had to advance fast so mining companies could turn a profit.
After most of the rich ore deposits had been used up, the companies and independent gougers found another way to better the bottom line — they chipped away new rock from the ceilings of the caves and the ore-rich pillars that supported them.
"They took stuff — gobs — that they shouldn't have took, should have left," said Rhoades, who worked for independent mining contractors during the years some support pillars were demolished.
Ken Luza, a geologist with the Oklahoma Geological Survey who has written reports about the area, said the exploitive mining practices left parts of Picher brittle and vulnerable to collapse.
Keheley, of the museum, said it didn't help that the companies left the heavy, wasted rock on the surface instead of making the ground whole again.
"If they had chosen to put mine tailings (wasted rock) back in the ground, you wouldn't have the potential for collapse," he said.
Instead, the mining companies turned the area into a gray "wasteland," he said.
Most every afternoon of young Peggy Rhoades' life revolved around three events: a blast, a whistle and a fear her husband, Zeak Rhoades, would not make it home alive.
At 3:45 p.m., she felt the blasts.
"The house shook so hard that it rattled the dishes in the cabinet," she said. The ground trembled beneath her feet as dynamite explosions in the mines hollowed the ground out for further exploration.
At 4 p.m., the whistle.
Peggy cooked Zeak Rhoades' favorite suppers — pork chops, steak, or potatoes and gravy.
And until 4:30 p.m., she waited, expecting him to come home, but half-expecting that maybe he'd been killed. The routine became, well, routine in some ways. But her worry was ever-present as she stood in the kitchen, their dinner hot and ready.
"I just had concerns about his working under there, and about a slab (of rock) falling on him or something happening to him," said Peggy, now 73. "We never had any sons. We had three daughters, but it wouldn't be something I would want for my son if I had a son, I don't think. But it seemed like to me he always enjoyed going to work."
For Zeak, it was a job, and one of the only ones around.
X-rays and accidents
In the entry room of the Picher Mining Museum — a white ranch-style building that once had a zinc roof — a black music stand holds a moldering, silver binder full of obituaries.
Joe Allen's name is written in script letters at the top of the first page. On March 27, 1914, he lost his balance getting out of the iron bucket that had just carried him up a 212-foot mine shaft. He fell back down the shaft and was killed by the impact.
Age: "about 30."
Between 1924 and 1929, 23,494 accidents occurred at the mines and mills, according to mining association records. In more than 1,100 of those instances, jagged rocks fell from the ceilings of the caverns, landing on workers.
In peak years, deaths occurred most every month. Between 1925 and 1927, an average of 39 people died each year, the records show.
Miners braved the dangerous conditions for scant pay.
"We were poor," said Keheley, whose father worked in the mines. "We didn't always have meat on the table, even though my dad was working six days a week."
The work divided Picher into two stark classes, he said.
Men who shoveled heavy metals out of the mines were paid 11 1/2 cents to shovel a half-ton pile of rock into a can, Keheley said. John Mott, a 79-year-old former mill worker, said he earned $0.78 an hour herding toxic lead and zinc gravel onto the chat piles during World War II.
That pay was higher than the federal minimum wage, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
Meanwhile, the mines sold or melted ore worth between $6 million and $38 million a year, according to a 1970 government report.
Workers had no insurance from their work in the mines, health or otherwise, Keheley said.
Yearly physical exams were required by the Tri-State Zinc & Lead Ore Producers Association and were conducted in the building that now is home to the mining museum and its display of obituaries.
Doctors' records show chest X-rays to be the only real point of interest in the exam. Keheley said the X-rays were used to see whether miners had silicosis (which usually is caused by working in a mine) or other lung diseases that would cause them to work more slowly.
Miners with lung disease were fired on the spot, he said.
Miners had to carry a wallet-sized health card with them. If you failed a health test, that fact appeared on your card, and you could never work for any of the area's mining companies again.
Workers were "expendable," Keheley said. A line of healthy people almost always waited to take a sick miner's spot.
And without many regulations or strong unions, little could be done to curb worker abuse, said William W. Savage Jr., a historian at the University of Oklahoma.
"If you can exploit the labor force in the east in factories, you can certainly abuse the rural population, or the predominantly rural population of a place like Oklahoma," he said.
The last mine closed in 1970.
The Eagle-Picher Mining Co., the last to remain, made no news conferences or announcement for the occasion, Keheley said. The company "quietly closed the door" on the mining era simply by writing an article in a local newspaper.
The hunt for precious minerals in northeastern Oklahoma has left the earth, a town and its people forever turned inside out.
"Look what we're facing," Peggy Rhoades said, sitting in her living room. "We're going to have to move. We thought we were going to be here for the rest of our lives."
But Picher has a spirit, residents say.
Its independent streak and never-give-up attitude were implanted through decades of hard times.
Living here has been dangerous and difficult; and that's something most here say they can cope with. After all, if the mining companies hadn't turned the fertile hay meadows into a tarnished moonscape, this town would not exist.
But for even the proudest of Picherites, the federal buyout of their homes — and the likely death of their town — is beginning to feel a lot like fate.
Editor's note: The Eagle-Picher company declined to comment for this report. Art Fiacco, spokesman for Eagle-Picher Technologies, said he did not know a bankrupt branch of his company had operated mines in Oklahoma, or about the current government buyout. The company came out of its second bankruptcy this summer, he said, and deals primarily in the space, defense, medical and power industries.