December 16th, 2005


a flooded house in Thistle, UT

In the three years that I've been travelling the U.S. in a futile attempt to cure my insatiable wanderlust, I've taken several opportunities to explore western ghost towns. In the past, however, I've always sought them out purposely. While travelling U.S. 89 in central Utah earlier this week, I encountered one quite by chance; one with an interesting and infamous history.

Thistle served as a junction for many things in the course of history. Geographically, Thistle Creek and Soldier Creek converge to form the Spanish Fork River, creating a natural river valley around the western side of Solider Summit. In the late 19th century, the town of Thistle sprung to life with the junction of two lines of the Denver & Rio Grande railroad, boasting as many as 600 residents in the early 20th century.

With the introduction of the automobile and the decline of rail service, the town's population dwindled throughout the rest of the century to a population of around 50. Thistle served as a primary junction of two major U.S. Highways - U.S. 6 and U.S. 89. At one time, U.S. 50 also ran through here before being re-routed a couple hundred miles to the south. In the spring of 1983, at the onset of the '82-84 El Nino, a major landslide broke loose from the side of Soldier Summit, burying the town and obliterating the railroad and highways. The resulting natural dam created what is now Thistle Lake and necessitated the re-routing and the railroad through Soldier Summit in tunnels and the highways through a new pass on the eastern side of the mountain. The following satellite photo gives a top-down view of the area. The area just south of "THISTLE" is where the waterways, highways, and railways all met prior to the landslide.

Scroll around the area yourself at Google

The landslide was devastating. It was the first presidential declaration of natural disaster for the state of Utah. While it was slow and deliberate, resulting in no loss of human life, it was costly. To this day, it remains the most costly landslide in U.S. history, totalling nearly 400 million dollars in damage, reconstruction, and lost revenue. Adjusted for inflation, that would be a modern-day price tag of $764 million.

Of course, I didn't know all of this prior to taking the following photos. I just saw some cool, old buildings by the side of U.S. 89 as I was on my way to Mt. Pleasant, UT. I made my delivery and on the return trip, decided to do some exploring armed with my trusty camera.

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