Thistle, Utah: Spanish Fork Canyon's Ghost Town

Driving down US Highway 6, it’s still easy to point out the exact location of the massive landslide that led to the destruction of Thistle, a small railroad town in Spanish Fork Canyon. The landslide caused a natural dam that caused the Spanish Fork River to pool up, eventually flooding the town. While most of the town was destroyed in the flood, the skeletal structures of several buildings are still visible from US-6, a haunting reminder of nature’s awesome power.

Thistle got its start as a railroad resupply town. In fact, most of the early settlers were there on assignment from railroad companies to provide some rudimentary services to help out trains as they passed through town. Mormon settlers also made up a small part of the early population.

As rail traffic became more important in the West, Thistle’s role as a supply town grew: they provided a dining service for passing trains before the advent of dining cars, supplied helper engines for trains traveling up the mountains, and had extensive coal and water resupply facilities. The growth of the rail industry also resulted in the growth of the town. At its highest point in the late 1970s, Thistle had around 600 residents, and several other structures were built to accommodate its growing numbers, including bakeries, restaurants, saloons, and a two-floor schoolhouse.

In 1983, railway surveyors were the first to notice the changing geographical landscape. Their biggest worry was that the shifting earth would warp the rails, and they worked tirelessly with many different crews to try and keep the tracks in line. Their effort was to no avail, however, as the entire mountainside appeared to be slipping away. Rail officials eventually decided to abandon the line that ran through Thistle, and the State of Utah put out an evacuation notice to all Thistle residents to save what belongings they could and leave the town. The landslide ended up creating a natural dam that backed up the Spanish Fork River, and just a few days after the evacuation notice the flood destroyed basically the whole town.

While there weren’t any reported causalities from the landslide and flood, the economic consequences were large. Two trucking companies laid off workers, cancelled contracts, and even suspended operations. Most of the area's coal mines laid off miners, cancelled contracts, and experienced shut downs. Due to market conditions and the Thistle landslide, coal production dropped nearly 30 percent in 1983. Tourism in the area, particularly in-state tourism, was greatly reduced due to lack of access. To the south, the blockage of Highway 89 and the rail line hurt coal companies, turkey and feed operations, and gypsum, cement, and clay shipments. In total, the Thistle landslide caused total estimated capital losses of $48 million and revenue losses of $87 million.

Today, only the scattered remains of the town are visible. Half-submerged buildings, the old school house, and the occasional home are all that remains of this old railway town. It still serves as a stark symbol of nature’s power.

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