UTAH COUNTY (ABC4) — With an increase in flooding around Utah this season, many are reminiscing on events from this time 40 years ago when a landslide had completely wiped out the small town of Thistle.
It all started in April of 1983, as a year of heavy rainfall and record-breaking snowpack hit the state with sudden floods, prompting locals to brace for the worst. This natural disaster proved to be too much for Thistle — a settlement tucked in Spanish Fork Canyon.
At one time, Thistle was a lively town of 650 residents but would shrink over the years with about 22 homes occupied by 1983. However, those still living there cherished it as home.
Sadly, with rapid snowmelt occurring that spring, nothing could be done when massive landslides were triggered seemingly overnight.
Within days, the slide moved at several feet per hour and a 220-foot dam eventually rested in the Spanish Fork River. This dam created a fast-growing reservoir over the town, aptly named “Thistle Lake,” which became over 160 feet deep before being drained by diversion culverts.
Despite efforts to contain the flooding, townspeople were forced to evacuate within hours and leave behind their most precious belongings.
By the time everyone had evacuated, Thistle was completely submerged in water.
The extent of this landslide was felt nationwide, as it resulted in Utah’s first presidential disaster declaration, closed several state highways, and cut off the railroads between Denver and Salt Lake City.
In the end, the Thistle disaster caused approximately $200 million in damages (over $600 million today) and would forever be imprinted in the memories of those who watched the town disappear.