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.
As I wound down into the valley on U.S. 89, something caught my eye. There was an abandoned house on the east side of the highway, but what caught my eye was the fact that a good portion of it appeared to be underground. On the satellite image above, the rough location of this house is marked by a red star. On the return trip, when I was afforded the opportunity to stop, the fact that it had been flooded was apparent.
It was a so-called 1.5 story structure. Judging from the interior, it appears to have been built in two stages. The first stage was the section on the right (east side), with the upper "A" section. The second stage was built around the existing structure as a first level addition which wrapped around the house on the front and left side. There also appeared to be another addition added to the right side in the rear which you can't see in this photo. As you can see, the bottoms of the window sills are even with the snow cover. While the snow was deep (anywhere from 6-8 inches)...
... it didn't account for the manner in which the house was buried. In fact, the house was still flooded with water, leaving a third of the first-floor submerged.
Luckily for me, it was the middle of December. With the roof mostly intact, shielding the water from the daily sun, the first floor was completely covered in ice, allowing me to explore the first level rather easily. As I entered, I had to stay to the left side where the ice was and had the following view with the sun streaming in the front door.
It was pretty obvious it led the way to the kitchen. Immediately to my right, was the remains of wall with an eletrical breaker box and an old water heater.
I made my way in slowly toward the left, testing the ice with each footstep. I began to realize that I was entering what used to be the rear entrance of the house. I t was now standing what probably used to serve as a small dining room off the kitchen with a doorway leading into the front living areas of the house. The room with the water heater probably once held a washer and dryer. From my vantage point inside the house, I could see the kitchen a little better. There was an "island-counter" attached to the wall, the level of the water/ice stopping just beneath it. Imagine standing in your own kitchen and the height of your counter tops. This is how high the water in the house was.
The kitchen cabinets were all flung open, probably left that way from the time of its abandonment and eternally blown around by the harsh Utah winds. I began to creep along the ice into the kitchen and the ice began to crack; it wasn't going to support my weight. Due to the weathered decay, the ceiling rafters were exposed and I was able to make my way across the ice, keeping my weight off of it by pulling myself along the rafters. I made it to the "island counter" and found it sturdy and stable. This allowed me a closer look at the kitchen.
As you'll notice in the that last photo, the light tube which resides above the kitchen sink is still intact. The sink itself, however, was buried beneath the water and flotsam. In the following photo, you can just barely make-out the exterior of the rusted metal basin beneath the edge of the counter in the center of the photo.
I made my way along the rafters further into the large room beyond the kitchen, which probably served as the common living area of the house. The ice here was much more solid, as thick as 4-6 inches, which was enough to support my weight yet clear enough to so see the surface beneath. I could see the sediment which had settled here in addition to driftwood.
The room was spacious and open.
In the far right of the photo you can see the kitchen through the wall. Tracing along the wall you'll notice the chimney with a stove-pipe hole near the ceiling. It looks as if there may have been a fireplace at the bottom of the chimney at some point. Also of interest are the wood slats on the wall, giving evidence that it used to serve as the exterior of the original structure before the additions. The doorway in the far corner leads to the bathroom. Due to the sunlight coming in through the doors and windows on the east side of the house, it was impossible to get into the bathroom, as it was filled with water. I was able to get close enough to reach the camera around the doorway, though.
It appears the back wall is where the tub used to reside. Actually, it probably still does, just lost beneath the murky water and sediment. The sink and toilet were still mostly visible however. The sink filled with sediment and refuse, but currently aboe the water-line. The toilet however was submerged, but visible. The tank's top was missing and the ballcock valve's buoy was raised well out of the tank, floating at the waterline.
Returning to the main room along the eastern wall, a double-doorway led to a many-windowed room which may have served as some sort of parlor/entry foyer, as this appeared to be the true "front" of the house. Its floor was completely covered in sediment but well above the waterline.
Turning to the left, a doorway led to a small room on the northern end of the house, which served as the bedroom.
Beside the doorway, further left, were the remaining studs of a walls which allowed a view of a small room connected to the room via a doorway which probably served as a closet judging from the shelving.
I first entered the bedroom, giving me a view of the closet door as well as a view into the house through the bedroom doorway.
Upon further inspection of the closet door, I began to wonder if this may have once served as an entrance to the house after the second-stage addition. The fact that it appears to have been a door with ornamental glass and a glass transom above it left me with the suspicion that the closet may have been a third-stage addition to the structure along with the parlor/foyer. The hooks between the doors like one would see by a house entrance sealed this theory for me. The other thing of interest in the bedroom is that it was one of the few rooms with any of the wallpaper still intact.
With the closet doorway closed and sealed shut by the ice, I had to go back to the main room and slide my way through the studs in the wall to access the interior of the closet.
To reiterate how high the water level is in the house, I took the following photo while standing, my head and shoulders above the rafter of the ceiling, which had long fallen from the studs.
Back through the missing glass of the closet door, I had a nice view of the bedroom and the section of wallpaper from the photograph above.
I never saw a staircase, though. Andit was pretty obvious from the exterior that access was intended for the upper level, at least in the building's originaol configuraton. I went back outside and clambered onto the roof. With the build-up of sediment, ice, and snow, it was rather low to the available surface.
I crawled into the opening in the wall and found a small crawlspace. It was obviously not intended for interior living. A number of planks were laid to the left side providing access to the rear of the space, which was lined with insulation between the studs. In the rear corners were piles of what appeared to be fire-brick, used for lining stoves and fire-places.
There was also old electrical insulators here, their wires long gone.
I clambered back down from the roof and headed for another, small exterior building on the property which likely served as a tool shed. Inside were a few shelves and metal bins.
There also remained one of the most ingenious storage systems known to mankind.
Now that we've been inside, I'll give you an idea of how the buildings relate to one another. They sit on the eastern side of the highway, between the road and a small stream, all of which is flanked by a large butte in the background.
As I began to head back for the truck after my little expedition, I noticed that the mailbox which used to serve this residence was still standing.
I hopped in the truck and drove a few hundred feet, approaching roughly where the highways used to converge before the landslide. A couple of other building remains were here. Due to the fence, terrain, and snow - I wasn't inclined to explore either of these building in more detail than to capture a few photos from my vantage point on the road, but they're such nice photos, I thought I'd include them with the entry. As a point of reference, these two structures were location where the blue star is on the satellite image.
I took nearly 100 photos in Thistle, all of which can be viewed in my photo gallery. I hope you enjoyed my little tour of Thistle.
Additional information and photos culled from:
Utah History Encyclopedia
National Geophysical Data Center