According to local legend, the town of Picher, Oklahoma, was created by accident. In 1914, the Picher Lead Company of Joplin, Missouri, sent workers to deliver equipment to a site in Oklahoma. Their truck got mired in the mud, however, and to relieve their boredom, the men drilled a hole. Surprisingly, they hit something—a thick vein of zinc and lead. The company set up shop, and the town of Picher sprung up around the new mines.
By the 1920s, the area was the country’s number-one producer of the two metals, the source of most metal used in ammunition in World War I and II. When the mines began to run dry in the 1960s, most companies packed up and left. In the end, however, that wasn’t what killed the town: The mining had resulted in extremely high levels of lead poisoning among residents, along with a spike in cancer rates, leading the Environmental Protection Agency to dub the town and its surrounding area the most contaminated place in America. The government began buying out residents’ homes in 2005, closing the town for good in 2009.
American photojournalist Seph Lawless has visited Picher several times over the years. The town is technically closed off, and for good reason—extensive mining underneath much of the town made the ground unstable and prone to collapse. “At one point, my foot actually fell through the ground as a huge sinkhole began opening up and I jumped to safety,” Lawless recalled. “There’s an eerie silence as I walked around the ghost town alone. I didn’t hear birds or see any signs of life—it was surreal.” The wind blew tiny bits of rock against his face. Known as chat, this fine gravel is a byproduct of zinc and lead mining, and huge mounds of it ring the town like a mountain range.
The photos reveal a desolate town, made up of a handful of dilapidated buildings that line a road of cracked asphalt. The clouds are threatening, hanging low and dark against the sky. But the interiors are equally apocalyptic: Brightly patterned clothes are hung up, left behind by a previous tenant—a reminder of the residents who were paid to move out of the town. In one abandoned front yard, a lone wicker chair remains.
Lawless hopes that his work will bring wider attention to the devastation. “I think people look at America, and we look at the skyscrapers and New York City, and we think America is great,” the photographer explained
last March. “And we are
a great country—I love my country to death, I really do. But hiding in the shadows [are] crumbling areas of my country that I want people to not forget about, too.”