This April will mark the 36th anniversary of the Thistle Disaster of 1983-1984. Thistle was originally the name of a town located at the junction of Highway 89 and Highway 6 up Spanish Fork Canyon. It became the name used to describe a massive mudslide which created a natural dam across the Spanish Fork River and destroyed the town of Thistle (along with large sections of railroad lines and highways).
The story began in April 1983 when, after unusually heavy precipitation, Utah Department of Transportation crews responded to reports that shifting earth had left huge cracks in U.S. Highway 6. Not long after a giant mudslide, moving at 6-18 inches an hour, dumped more than one million cubic yards of earth over the highway and destroyed the Denver and Rio Grande western railroad line through Thistle. Highway crews were unable to save either the road or the tracks as the mud mountain continued its descent from early April into May.
The massive slide created a natural dam across the Spanish Fork River, and the dam in turn created Thistle Lake, which completely submerged and destroyed the town of Thistle. The U.S. Corp of Engineers, the Utah National Guard, and construction workers from many companies joined UDOT workers in response to the Thistle slide. Efforts to control the slide turned to reconstruction of rail and roadways, and creation of a drainage tunnel to help bring down Thistle Lake.
Several years back I had the opportunity to participate in a collaborative effort with fellow archivists from USU and SUU to build an online exhibit of various records and record collections relating to the history along Highway 89. One of my contributions was a collection of photographs of the Thistle disaster, taken in real time by the Utah Department of Transportation’s staff photographer. Recently I revisited that online exhibit and curated some photos that document the disaster as it was unfolding. Enjoy!