Forces of nature have reduced Thistle to a memory

By Chris Vanocur

What happens when a ghost town gets ghosted? This question occurs to me while staring at the eerie remains of Thistle, Utah. Looking at a couple of sad and submerged buildings, I wonder how much longer will it be before even the ghosts are gone.

Thistle was once a smallish railroad town in Spanish Fork Canyon at the junction of U.S. highways 89 and 6. But in April 1983, after unusually heavy precipitation, a massive landslide dammed the Spanish Fork River, creating what became known as Thistle Lake, which submerged the town of 50 or so residents. These few remaining residents were forced to flee with haste.

The Utah Geological Survey website describes the slide’s massive disaster thusly:“The Thistle landslide and ‘Thistle Lake’ severed railroad service between Denver and Salt Lake City, flooded two major highways (U.S. 6 and U.S. 89), devastated the town of Thistle and resulted in Utah’s first presidential disaster declaration. Direct damage exceeded $200 million (in 1983 dollars), making Thistle the most expensive landslide to date in U.S. history.”

Now, the mental picture I have of a traditional Western ghost town comes from watching old black-and-white movies. These abandoned towns are supposed to have have a smattering of decaying yet noble buildings, a few tumbleweeds and a romanticized air of what used to be. But Thistle isn’t like that. There simply isn’t much gristle left there for visitors to chew on. While Google maps makes finding the Thistle area easy enough, it’s locating the ghosted buildings that’s tricky. A few waterlogged shacks are still visible, but beyond that, not much can be seen.

Eventually, I flag down a local who confirms “there’s not a lot left” of Thistle. Instead, he suggests I drive over to a nearby outlook which has a great view and a sign which tells the Thistle story. And while the outlook is pretty impressive, I am unable to find any sign or marker. Luckily, though, I have a friend who remembers Thistle quite well.

In 1983, Bob Loy was a standout TV reporter for KUTV News. Although many years have passed, his memories of covering the Thistle slide remain fresh.

In an email, my former colleague Loy recalls reporting from Thistle during the emergency, “Work had begun to compact the material that was blocking the Spanish Fork River—essentially the first steps toward creating what became the new dam. As water backed up, the big fear was that the dam might not hold and the town of Spanish Fork would be in grave danger.”

This was such a scary and monumental event, Loy (who now lives back East) has urged friends and Utah visitors to check out the old Thistle site, “I related the story of the landslide, dam and ultimate inundation of the town of Thistle and suggested they look for remnants of the ghost town when passing by the area.”

Sadly, though, little remain. After finding only a few Thistle throwbacks, I ended up at a nearby scenic but isolated campground. There, enjoying a PB&J picnic, I reflect on this ghosted ghost town and my old friend who covered its demise. In my last question to Loy, I asked how he has come to view Thistle? He replied: It could have been a lot worse.

“My perspective is that it’s too bad a small town was in the way of a geologic incident that destroyed the homes of its residents. I also still am struck by the ingenuity of literally going with the flow and engineering a stable, safe dam that probably saved the town of Spanish Fork. Had the engineering work not been done, I think the natural dam that was being formed by the slide would have eventually breached and caused mayhem downstream.”

To see how little is left of a washed-away Utah town, take Interstate 15 toward Spanish Fork, and from there, take Exit 261 to U.S. Route 6. After 11 miles, to see the landslide, turn right onto Spanish Fork River Park road. If you keep going 12½ miles (from I-15) and turn right into the pullout, you’ll have an excellent overview of the area. About a mile and a half after the pullout, you can turn right on to U.S. Route 89 and drive one and a half miles to what remains of Thistle’s ruins.

The 1983 landslide, after all, was massive—1,000 feet wide, 200 feet thick and over a mile long. Poor Thistle just happened to be in the way. The wrong town in the wrong place at the wrong time. Pitted against the forces of Mother Nature, Thistle really didn’t stand a ghost of chance.

Editor’s note: Since the story was written, Thistle again made the news in late July 2019. Flash flooding forced officials to close a 3-mile section of U.S. 89 between Thistle and Birdseye. The slides broke in the burn scar area of 2018’s Pole Creek Fire.

UDOT said in some areas 6 to 7 feet of water covered the road, leaving 2 feet of rocks and mud. The site that flooded was the same area that created the ghost town of Thistle.