Where’s Thistle? – The Ghost Town in Utah and The Landslide of 1983

The abandoned ghost town of Thistle can be found right off the side of the road at and around mile marker 311, on route U.S. 89, through Spanish Fork, Utah.

In the beginning the trade route on which Thistle lies was used by Native American Tribes before the arrival of settlers in West. Ute Indian Chiefs, Taby and Peteetneet, used this path to lead seasonal migrations through the canyon for the spring and fall. The Dominguez-Escalante Expedition was the first recorded journey by Europeans to go through modern Thistle. American Indian guides led the expedition through the territory. A group of Ute Indians inhabiting the canyon often clashed with the newcomers, they were forcibly relocated in the 1870’s.

Thistle began to be settled when the first Mormon’s headed west, the first of these being the Pace family. Other Mormon’s also arrived to homestead the fertile grounds on Billies Mountain, north of the canyon. Homesteading, farming, ranching, and some occasional mining where the economy of Thistle until the 1900’s. Upon the arrival of the railroads through Thistle more workers of the railroads were sent to live there. Thus expanding Thistle, allowing for a town that had industry through servicing trains and steam locomotives for Denver and the Rio Grande. When the locomotives were changed to diesel powered the town began to decline.

What made Thistle into a ghost town was a massive landslide that occurred in April, 1983. The residents were evacuated as 65,000 acre feet of water backed up and flooded the town. It is stated to have been the most costly landslide in the United States History at a 21st century cost of up to $922 million. Many former residents of Thistle have filed lawsuits claiming that the railroad company knew of impending disaster because Rio Grande maintenance personal noticed unstable ground downstream years before the landslide. Maintenance crew had repaired the track on several different occasions, but never fully investigated the situation. That along with the autumn and winter of 1982-1983 where record snow and rain fall occurred, spring began to arrive which led to an increase of water saturation in the mountains. By April 17th the landslide had gathered so much force that the Utah Department of Transportation and the Rio Grande had to leave the existing transportation lines and build new ones. The evacuation of Thistle was changed from voluntary to mandatory. By the 18th of April the waterline had reached the rooftops of the 22 homes in Thistle. When the 19th came the entire mountain was moving 2 feet an hour and U.S. Route 6 was buried by 50 feet of dirt. The landslide formed a dam that created a lake 200 feet deep and 3 miles long. Afraid of a possible Teton Dam site incident that state of Utah decided to re-route the Spanish Fork River. It took until November of 1984 for the road to be replaced completely, as well as the railroad, and for the water to mostly drain.

Today, Thistle is left with only a few remaining bits of structure and old houses partially submerged in the water around the road. The ghost town is visible from not only road U.S. Route 89, but at a rest area on U.S. Route 6, and whilst riding the California Zephyr passenger train.

These images below are from Google Street View.

Where is the Ghost Town of Thistle located? You can find it with these coordinates. 39.990477,-111.498388.

Images 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 used under Creative Commons License Attribution Non Commercial Share Alike 2.0 Generic. Images 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 by Mastahanky [Flickr / mastahanky].

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