Thistle, Utah, is a strange place. It’s a little ghost town in Spanish Fork Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains. It was established in 1878 and was a railroad town, situated along the Rio Grande mainline. U.S. Route 6 and U.S. Route 89 intersected in Thistle. A lot of people and cargo passed through there, but the town never really became much of anything. At it’s peak in the 1920’s, the town had a population of just over 400 people.
I had heard of Thistle many years ago, because photographer Richard Steinheimer had captured two of his most well known pictures there. I had never visited it, nor did I have any idea of what it looked like, outside of a couple black-and-white prints captured in the 1950’s. It was a recent adventure that led me to stumble upon Thistle quite by accident. I passed through it not knowing what I was passing through, and stopped because I saw something interesting.
Steinheimer, if he were still alive, would not recognize Thistle. Both highways have been rerouted and the tracks have been realigned. Even the Spanish Fork River isn’t entirely in the same place. The town is almost entirely gone, with the exception of a half-submerged house and some crumbling ruins that are barely hanging on. In 1983 there was a massive mudslide that demolished the little town of Thistle. It completely destroyed the area. At the time it was the costliest landslide in U.S. history.
The ruins of Thistle are easy to miss. On the west side of Route 89 are a couple crumbled buildings that almost blend into the landscape. On the east side of the highway is an old house that’s halfway deep in water, hidden behind some tall brush. I’m sure many people drive right through Thistle and don’t even realize it. There’s not much to see. There wasn’t much to see when the town was still a town, but there’s really not much left today.
I visited Thistle on a cold winter day, much like Steinheimer did back before my parents were even born. The location is beautiful, and the snow hides the tragic remains. I’m glad that fate took me to this cold and lonely place as I appreciate the adventure. Thistle will soon be completely gone and I’m thankful that I got to see it before then. Still, I don’t think I’ll be returning anytime soon.