Reflections on the Thistle mudslide from a reporter who was there

Apr 14, 2023, 1:30 PM | Updated: Apr 15, 2023, 10:28 am

Thistle Mudslide...

Thistle Mudslide in 1983. Photo: Utah State Archives and Records Service

This is an editorial piece. An editorial, like a news article, is based on fact but also shares opinions. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and are not associated with our newsroom.

THISTLE, UTAH — I began covering the Thistle Mudslide shortly after it began in April, 1983.

When I arrived at the site in Spanish Fork Canyon, there was an effort underway to keep the Thistle mudslide away from Highway 6. Bulldozers and other heavy equipment climbed up of the slide trying to do just that.

I remember how tiny they looked from a distance, crawling across the giant slide like insects. It became clear very quickly that no effort made by we little humans was going to stop geology from happening. The slide was going to have its way, blocking the river and destroying the road and the railroad tracks.

Access through the canyon was cut off and floodwaters covered the town of Thistle, which had been a railroad junction and home to about 50 people.

A historic school at the intersection of Highway 6 and Highway 89 was among the drowned buildings in the town.

We worried about the danger as water from the river backed up behind the slide. If it had broken through the slide, it would have caused a catastrophic flood downstream in Spanish Fork Canyon. But it was months before a tunnel through the slide was able to drain the lake and relieve the danger.

“The town never recovered”

The town never recovered. Nor did the railroad spur, the Marysvale Branch that connected the D&RGW line to southern Utah.

The tracks were abandoned, while the Union Pacific tracks through the canyon were eventually rebuilt higher on the hillside.

Once the highway was reconnected at the spot now called Thistle Junction, we marveled at the sight of ruined homes standing in the water as we passed through on our way to Sanpete County.

We adapted to the landscape changed by the slide, but the lesson it taught is still there.

Our state is shaped by geological processes that we do not control. We must remember that when we look at the fault scarps at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon or the lava flows next to I-15 in Millard County.

The cities where we live were under 300 feet of water as recently as 16,000 years ago — within the time that people have lived here.

“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever,” says Ecclesiastes. We will, one day, understand its sovereignty.

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Reflections on the Thistle mudslide from a reporter who was there