Home Abandoned The Vanishing Town of Thistle, Utah

The Vanishing Town of Thistle, Utah

by Jennifer Jones
Submerged House Thistle Utah - The Dead History
Reading Time: 3 minutes

A couple of years ago I was driving from Ogden to the small town of Spring City, Utah to pick up a puppy. After passing through Spanish Fork Canyon, and taking a right onto US-89, I drove around a curve and saw the strangest sight.  On the side of the road was a decaying house, mostly submerged in water, and partially hidden by tall grass. It’s not an easy area to stop in, and I was in a hurry to pick up my pup, so I was not able to stop that day and explore the area. It wasn’t until I recently found myself back in the area that I realized the submerged house was one of the few remaining hints of the town of Thistle, Utah

Submerged House Thistle, Utah The Dead History

While a few people began to settle in Thistle as far back as the late 1840’s, it wasn’t until it became an important railroad junction around 1890 that town began to grow. By 1920, 417 people were living in Thistle, and the town boasted a large depot and roundhouse, stores, a saloon, a post office, and a schoolhouse.((http://www.uen.org/utah_history_encyclopedia/t/THISTLE.html))

Thistle Utah The Dead History

Courtesy, L.Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602.

As rail travel became less popular the town’s population slowly dwindled and by the early 1970’s the depot was moved to a nearby town and converted into a house, various shops and the post office were demolished.  By 1983, only 50 families remained in Thistle.

So what caused those few remaining families to leave town and why is there an old house mostly submerged in water? The answer is a massive landslide that occurred in April of 1983.

Heavy rains and fast melting snowpack were too much for the nearby mountain to handle.  Authorities were aware that this area was prone to slides and knew that it was a possibility, but it doesn’t appear anyone expected such a massive slide to happen so quickly, or to be so devastating.

By the 15th of April, 1983 the highway and the railroad tracks had become buckled and unusable. So much mud had made its way down the mountain it eventually created an enormous earthen dam that blocked the Spanish Fork River.  While the Utah Department of Transportation worked feverishly to try and siphon and divert the water to save the railroad (and Thistle), it was to no avail.  By Sunday, April 17th, Thistle and the surrounding area was completely flooded. People had barely enough time to get what few things they could carry and leave the area. They never returned.

Submerged House Thistle, Utah - The Dead History

When all was said and done the landslide measured 1,000 feet wide, 200 feet thick, and a mile long.  To this day, it remains Utah’s largest and most costly landslide and was also Utah’s first presidential disaster declaration.

Thistle Landslide The Dead History

Utah State Archives and Records Service

All that remains of the town are a few foundations and ruins of buildings that are unrecognizable compared to before the flood. The ruins of the Thistle School have not handled time or vandals well and are reduced to not much more than a pile of rubble.

Thistle Schoolhouse The Dead History

Utah State Archives and Records Service

Thistle, Utah Schoolhouse The Dead History

It seems the house in the water has held up better than the other structures and serves as a strange reminder of the town and people who called Thistle home.

Submerged House Thistle,Utah The Dead History

67 comments

Evelyn (Sackett) Neese (one of Billie's girls!) May 18, 2016 - 1:23 pm

My dad was raised in Thistle. Dad was a carman for the D&RG Railroad. Remember going to grandparents home and cousins down the street. Probably spent every Thanksgiving there from 1948 – 1966. Lots of fun memories!

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Kenna Turner May 19, 2016 - 9:52 am

I would love to hear or read those stories! Thistle has always had a special place in my heart as I’ve always been intrigued and interest in any and all stories of Thistle.

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Angie May 20, 2016 - 7:03 am

I was only 3 years old when this happened but every Summer after 1987 we would always pass thistle . Man I would love any old pictures before the flood if anyone could please email me @amickelsen@hotmail.com
For the last 30 years every summer would I love to see what all the old under ground houses once were. So awesome

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Susan Harward May 25, 2016 - 7:19 pm

Did you know the Richard Jones family? That’s where my mom is from, her name was Dixie Jones,. She was born in 1937.

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Gates May 19, 2016 - 12:15 am

My grandpa worked for d&rg and lived in thistle til the flood. My dad grew up there
I love hearing the stories of the good old days and going to the old property to explore

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Kenna Turner May 19, 2016 - 9:49 am

I would love to hear or read some of those stories!

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Lorie May 19, 2016 - 7:43 am

This was my grandfathers brothers house.

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Kenna Turner May 19, 2016 - 9:48 am

It’d be really cool to hear his story if possible. I have a family cabin in Mt. Pleasant and we pass through Thistle every time we go to our cabin. My whole life, I’ve been very interested and intrigued by Thistle. I’ve always tried my hardest to find out more about Thistle and hear some stories of memories in this little town but have had little luck.

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Molly Ford May 19, 2016 - 10:27 pm

Talk to Gwen Dockstader who lives in Payson. She has tons of stories, pictures, memories and loves to share.

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Julie May 19, 2016 - 1:42 pm

I spent time there as a very young child. My guardian would go over to visit and I tagged along.

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Tina Jones May 19, 2016 - 8:46 am

My grand parents met there and my great grandpa died in the mine collapse on May 1,1900 my grandpa was a water boy for the miners but he wasn’t inside at the time… My Great Grandpa was John Thomas Jones…

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blynn.jeppson May 21, 2016 - 8:51 pm

Do you have any relatives (in your relatives in your Jones family tree) from Fairview—a farming town?

blynn.jeppson@gmail.com

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Scott May 19, 2016 - 10:09 am

My grandpa was born in Thistle in 1909, his father was a fireman on the railroad.

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Kaye May 19, 2016 - 10:24 am

Have you seen the book that was published in 1983 called “Thistle. . .Focus on Disaster”? Author Oneita Burnside Sumsion.
Lot of photos, tells about the flood, and the history of it.

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Camille May 21, 2017 - 6:36 pm

Yes,my Aunt Oneita wrote !! My family from Fairview on my,dad’s side,…many great memories on the old road going to grandma Burnside house,also was there when the slide happened,I was on a boat ,sad when thistle went under water….

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Patsy seevers May 19, 2016 - 11:06 am

My brother was one of the crew who volunteered to help run the heavy equipment to get the trains going again.

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LaVina Kirkwood May 19, 2016 - 12:17 pm

Our Ancestors_Kirkwood & Lombardi from Thistle. The roof of Kirkwwod home can still be seen farther down Spanish Fork canyon.

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Vickie Nostrom May 20, 2016 - 9:54 am

Do you have any old pictures of Thistle? My mother was Barbara Lombardi. Her dad and my grandpa was John Michael Lombardi know as Jack. I remember looking at Grandma Spencer’s old house which was right across from the school house every time we went to Indianola to Aunt Norma’s.

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Monica May 20, 2016 - 11:00 pm

My grandmother was a Lombardi from there

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Nancy May 21, 2016 - 5:20 am

My mother is a Lombardi. Where are your Lombardi ancestors from in Italy?

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Vickie (Haney) Nostrom May 25, 2017 - 9:07 am

My mom’s grandpa was James Andrew Lombardi. He was born in Pagliaroni, Vastogirardi, Campobasso, Italy. It is in our family history. He was born Oct 14, 1866 and married Mary Ann Leek in January 1894.

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Wade pellum May 19, 2016 - 12:57 pm

Intersting, i was driving to my grandmothers when this happened. ( also a Kirkwood ) i remember by the cafe going over the bump created by the beginning of the slide. A fews days later there was no going back. The house standing. I believe belonged to the nelsons. I have been in it. But if course the landscape had changed so i could be mistaken.

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Mary (Lee) Kirkwood May 6, 2017 - 9:46 am

You are right wade. It is, or was the home of the nelsons. What I have always wondered about was if they managed to get any of their paintings out. I don’t know if you remember but other readers might be interested in the fact that both of the nelsons were artist and the building directly south of the house was their studio and it was full of their paintings. Sadly last time I drove past that building was gone or completely submerged.

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Julie May 19, 2016 - 1:39 pm

I lived in Thistle as a small child. We sold our house right before the flood. The man who purchased it lived in the white house that still stands on the hill. He turned it into a store where my guardian worked. I went with her to work and played all day.
Our house in nothing more than the foundation in the dirt now. Vandals have destroyed most of Thistle.
The house submerged belonged to a couple with the last name Nelson I believe. They were a very nice couple and if I recall gave me my first taste of fruit cake. I still don’t like it haha.
Mr. Nelson painted a picture of the wonderful man whom was married to my guardian. I held onto it until 2001, I then have it to him to share with his family.
I went to Thistle a few months ago and relived a little bit of my childhood.

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Bruce Rigby May 19, 2016 - 5:38 pm

Thank you for bring back a lot of memberery of the floods of 1983. I remembered seeing the slide before they closed down the caynon. There is a lot of stories to be tolled about the floods of 83. The state street river. being alloyed to fish on state street the bridge at Dirks feild. The way we all helped each other from Odgen to Provo.

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Brooke May 19, 2016 - 5:38 pm

My father worked at the thistle and took hundreds of photos I have them boxed up hoping someday I could donate them to a memorial.

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Cody Jones May 19, 2016 - 10:14 pm

I would love to see any photos you have. My dad grew up in Thistle with his 6 siblings but they lost most of their photos in the flood. I’ve heard many stories but have very few pictures of the town

Love to see anything you’re willing to share

Cody Jones is my name.

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blynn.jeppson May 21, 2016 - 8:54 pm

Do you have any relatives from Thistle who are related to any relatives by the name of Jones in Fairview, Utah….

My cousin is interested…. thanks….P.S. I was born in Fairview, Utah…..many years ago….

blynn.jeppson@gmail.com

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Norm May 19, 2016 - 7:29 pm

I was there from the first hours of the slide and on through the next couple years. D&RGW Railroad section worker and was working at Thistle the morning that monster started. Fun times….

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Mike peterson May 19, 2016 - 8:13 pm

My dad and grew up in that town so I think I’ve met some of you when we they did the Thistel reuon there are a lot of story’s with that great town I still go the to camp and hunt.

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Cody Jones May 19, 2016 - 9:45 pm

I too have always been intrigued by Thistle. My dad grew up there and was a brother to Gates’ (see comments) dad. I love when we all get together and they start in on their stories. Some real classics of what it was like to be a kid growing up in a railroad town with 7 siblings.

I would love to see any pictures you have and would be willing to share @brooke. Most of my families pictures were lost in the flood so although I hear the stories I don’t have any visuals of the store my grandpa ran or the engines he drove. Love to hear any stories anybody may have. And thanks for such a great article.

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blynn.jeppson May 21, 2016 - 8:56 pm

Do you have any Jones relatives (from Thistle) which knew the family of Jones in Fairview? thanks, my cousin wants to know….

I was born in Fairview in l939…. I am an “elderly” now…but I take my bike to school every afternoon to take math classes……decimals, etc…

Blynn.jeppson@gmail.com

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Stephanie Lynn Rowland Mott May 20, 2016 - 11:31 am

My Dad Glenn Rowland was the bishop of the LDS Branch at the time of the flood. My father in law Mark Mott knew and was friends with some of the people who lived there!!

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Jenn May 20, 2016 - 2:53 pm

Wow! I think it’s really cool that all of you have such great memories of Thistle. If anyone has photos they would like to share prior to the flood, please send me an email jennifer AT thedeadhistory DOT com and I’ll attach them to this article.

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Diana May 22, 2017 - 10:25 am

You are right! This is really cool. I have no connection to Thistle, but remember when this happened.

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Ray Bird May 21, 2016 - 6:38 am

My grandmother and grandfather lived in Thistle. They raised seven children there. Grandfather was an engineer for the D&RGW. THey lived in a home provided by the rail road. My grandmother, each morning would take a scoop shovel and walk up and down the tracks around their home and kill rattle snakes, before she would let her children go out and play. My mother, as a little girl, would play the piano at the little red school house so the children could march in to attend class.

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Jenn May 21, 2016 - 8:15 am

Your grandmother sounds like she was an awesome woman!!!

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Ray Bird May 21, 2016 - 12:13 pm

She was. Her name was Elizabeh Teucher Parker. She lived to the ripe old age of 98 and never had a sick day in her life.

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ralph o. spencer May 21, 2016 - 8:34 pm

WOW what a suprise. I was born in Thistle, Utah on April 2, 1938 until started first grade in Spanish Fork. Our home was the first house on the south side of the highway in the small home with rail road ties. My Mother was Ora Lombardi/Spencer. We moved to the coop apartments and Indianola.

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Francine Mills Giles Phoenix, Az. June 4, 2016 - 9:27 pm

I traveled with my grand parents through Thistle, on our way to Fairview, Mt. Pleasant & Spring City they grew up there. We went to visit family . As a child I always remember the Big Sheep painted on the side of the mountain, grandpa said that we were half way there. He used to tell stories about some friends who lived in Thistle, sheep herders. I remember when the flood took that quaint little town away and how sad I felt, I thought those people only had their memories left. I’ve read the comments from all of you, it was very interesting and brought back a lot of fun memories to me. Thank You all, for the reminder. I wondered if anyone rememberd the Big Sheep on the Mt. Beside me back in the 40’s & 50’s plus. Thx again

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Edith Nielsen August 16, 2016 - 3:58 pm

Wasn’t there an earlier flood of some sort? I drove through Thistle in 1951 on my way to Texas and took a picture of a house covered with mud with just a roof and part of the side showing and as I recall, it had just happened that Spring. I could be wrong, but I do have the picture which I could post.

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Sonia March 14, 2017 - 7:02 am

Wow! I haven’t thought about Thistle in a few years but I had to read this when I saw the 1984/2016 picture of my grandparents (Max & Alice Nelson) summer home. I loved spending some time there during the summer. We would fish in the river that ran through the back yard & swing on a ropethat hung from that tree. I remember the first time I saw it after the flood. The river now went through the house & you could see the rope hang down from the tree, the end now under the mud with the wood about a foot or so away (still attached I’m sure). I was so sad, I was 8 & I loved that swing lol. We took pictures that day. I will have to see if my Mom knows where they are I seem to recall seeing them when looking through her photo albums a few months ago looking for a photo.

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Sonia March 14, 2017 - 12:21 pm

I found a few pictures & I was wrong the 1984/2016 house was my great uncle Evan Nelson’s. My grandparents house was up the road a bit.

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Todd March 31, 2017 - 7:07 pm

Sonia, any chance you’d be willing to share your photos?

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melissa elsbury February 14, 2018 - 5:49 am

Sonia, i’ve trying to find an article that was in National Geographic and it had a photos of my grandmother, Evelyn Elsbury-Nelson standing along side her (what was left of it) home. Was your great uncle Evan Nelson married to Evelyn? …and would you know of this article? I would love to hear from you…………………melissa

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JOAN THOMAS May 21, 2017 - 8:30 am

My mother in law, Marguerite Hemmimg (Thomas) was born in Thistle, Utah on March 8, 1908.
I have her memories of her parents, William Henry Hemming and Louisa Mary Ann Matilda Higbee (Hemming), memories of her friends, and life in Thistle.
I have boxes of Photos, School class photos. Letters. Poems, Newspaper articles … all from this ‘lost’ interesting town.
I am 83 and wondering who will love and take good care of this collection …
Joan and Ken Thomas

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Jennifer Jones May 21, 2017 - 9:17 am

Hi Joan, the State Archives might be interested. I will send you an email with information on who you can contact. I would also love to see what you have.

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Raymond Roy Bird May 21, 2017 - 9:50 pm

William George Parker and his wife Mary Elizabeth Teuscher Parker livened in Thistle on the west side of the creek in housing provided by the D & RGW. He was an engineer for the railroad. He drove from Provo to Schofield. My mother was raised in Thistle until she was married. She played the piano in the Thistle school for the children to march too and from class. It is said that after my father, Walter Loyd Bird, married Marjorie Lydia Parker, and after the school closed down, he was able to buy the piano in the school that she played. We have it in our home today.

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Pamela S. Olschewski May 21, 2017 - 9:37 pm

Does anyone have a photograph of the cafe or restaurant from Thistle? I own the pie case that came out of that establishment, and I would love to have a picture of the outside, and if there is a picture of the inside that includes the case (it is upright, framed in wood with glass shelves) I would really love that.

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Charie Turner May 21, 2017 - 10:17 pm

This is my great grandmother’s house. My grandfather fixed the foundation on this house and a few of the others that were left standing after the flood. My grandfather and grandmother own a bar that was there I don’t know the name of it but this was a huge part of my family’s life and I love see things people have wrote about it. I was only 2 and half years old when the flood came through but I have grown-up listening to the stories that they would tell me about the bar and the people that live there

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George O'Camb May 21, 2017 - 11:41 pm

I got the cool opportunity to work on the current highway running through Thistle back in 2009. I remember a kind of saddness I felt as I was at times right in the heart of what appeared to be the center of town. The water line is still visible by the vegetation distinct change. What a great article, fun reading all the comments!

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Judy Rae Tripaldi May 22, 2017 - 3:09 pm

I have so enjoyed reading all these memories ! We lived in Helper, Utah and drove to Provo and Salt Lake city often as my grandparents lived in Provo and other family in Orem ! I would love to see the pictures of the thriving town of Thistle !

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Shelley May 22, 2017 - 9:32 pm

My Grandparents ran the Big D cafe for years. I will have to look through the old pictures and see what I have. We have so many childhood memories of Thistle.

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Dawnave Funk May 22, 2017 - 9:50 pm

Does anyone know where the Woodcocks relocated to? We knew them when we lived in Oklahoma. They moved to Utah and built their retirement/dream home in Thissle ( south of the house in the pictute) about 18 years ago. We also moved to Utah and built a retirement home in Fairview 14 years ago. We would drive past their new home on our way to Fairview before we moved there and visited them a couple of times. So sad to see their beautiful home after the waters receded. It looked like a giant had stepped on it.

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Kenneth woodcock February 3, 2018 - 8:06 pm

My name is Kenneth woodcock I lived in Thistle with my parents and brothers Alan and Jon Alan lives in St George so does my mother Charlie Jon lives in ft worth tex ,I live in temple texas

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Richard Monk May 24, 2017 - 8:58 am

I am from Spanish Fork. I was on my mission when this happened. In those days, the Spanish Fork Press was sent to all the missionaries from SF. I remember receiving the Press one P-day and reading the cover headline, “Utah Slide, Lake Submerge Town,” What a shock! And what an adventure to read about the “progress” of the slide and the newly formed lake, followed by the debate over the lake’s future and finally the building of the tunnels used to reroute the river and the train and the rebuilding of the road over Billie’s Mountain. As I recall the drainage tunnel was completed in just two or three months.

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Susan May 24, 2017 - 11:31 am

My Grandpa Leek was an engineer on the railroad. The Leeks lived in Thistle until the late 60s. I have great childhood memories of this place.

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Charliy Mitchell May 25, 2017 - 8:49 am

My father attended school in the red sandstone building and worked on the slide.
We grew up in Birdseye which is south of Thistle.
I collected all of the newspaper articles from when it was just a crack in the hiway.
I remember going down to the waters edge and waiting to see the telephone poles shoot out of the surface of the water while we waited to pick up dad from work they used a boat to go from the north side to the south I still have my “Thistle Navy” hat ?

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Ron Warner May 25, 2017 - 9:00 am

My Dad taught school in Thistle many years ago. John Fox Warner Jr. He knew everyone in the town then, and for years after. Probably about 1918 or so. He taught the Thistle kids and grandkids in Spanish Fork when the Thistle school closed.
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Daniel Warner May 30, 2017 - 8:39 am

We are related! John Fox Warner Sr. is my 2nd great grandfather. I’m from Jessie Payton Warner’s line. I didn’t know I had a family connection to Thistle. Cool!

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Shawn Beal August 10, 2017 - 11:09 am

My grandfather Alden Beal lived in the pink house across the highway from Evan Neilsons place. I use to spend my summers there with him. His next door neighbor to the south was a Mrs. Lombardi and Elva Webb lived at the end of the road in a house made out of railroad ties. I have several pictures of the area if you would like to share them.

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Richard Henline December 27, 2017 - 3:08 pm

My dad, Howard Hayes Henline was born in Thistle in Nov. Of 1922. Both his dad and granddad worked for the railroad. Around 1929, my great grandmother, Nannie Mae Henline was killed in a house fire that completely destroyed the house. My great grandfather then moved to Magna, Utah where he continued to work for the railroad there. My grandfather moved his family to the Mountain Rose ranch, a few miles northeast of Thistle in Diamond Fork canyon. This ranch was owned by my other great grandfather, John Israel Hayes. I am really interested in the history and any pictures from the early years in Thistle. I do have a picture of my dad’s first grade class with the names of his classmates, in case anyone is interested.

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Jacob Stout May 26, 2018 - 7:37 am

Richard, I am a graduate student at Utah State University and am studying the Diamond Fork River. Your great grandfather, John Israel Hayes, and his ranch has come up in some documents I found from the Bureau of Reclamation. It’s not much, but I am curious if you have found any pictures of him or his ranch. We have been looking for some historical photos of the river.

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Richard L. Henline May 26, 2018 - 9:44 am

Hi Jacob. I indeed have pictures of my great grandfather, John Israel Hayes and a picture of the Mountain Rose Ranch. I don’t really have any actual picturesof the river but i am very familiar with it. Our family has reunions in Diamond Fork and we have fished and swam in the water there many times. One thing of note is that one of my grandmother’s sisters, Naomi Hayes drowned in the river when she was a young child. Let me know how to get the photos to you and I’ll be happy to do so. I’d be interested in the history you are compiling. If you want to contact me directly, my email address is rlhenline@gmail.com.

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Steven August 24, 2018 - 7:31 am

I was in Salt Lake City for job training at Huntsman Cancer Institute around 2004. I loved to drive around and explore the moutains. One day on my way to an mountain adventure I unexpectedly discovered Thistle. There was a scenic lookout with a parking area and some information posted about the old town. The only building that was there was the old school house. The roof was gone, but all four walls were still standing, being propped up by timber. There was a sign that said “keep out”, so I did, but now I wish I had gone in. I took a few pictures. a few years later I found the old black and white photo of the school, the same one that’s posted above, and I compare it to the one I have; and I find it sad to see where those people were once standing, on the steps and in the yard. I love the story of the little town. It’s sad that it’s gone, but I’m happy I came across it by accident and got to share something very special.

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Clarence Underwood October 30, 2018 - 5:33 pm

This is the first time I have seen this website and am amazed by the interest and number of people with Thistle connections.
My father was raised in Thistle (The Underwoods) and after he married my mother they made their home there, until they lost it in the flood of 1952. My aunt was the Post Mistress in Thistle for many years and I had an aunt and uncle who lost their house in the landslide. My father and both uncles were engineers for the D&RG. I spent a lot of time as a child there and believe that my aunt’s house, where the post office was located until officially closed in the 60’s, survived the uprooting that most of the houses went through. But after the water subsided was buried in muck and mud. Thanks for the memories.

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Keith Tucker November 20, 2018 - 4:44 pm

this is a great site, my dad worked for H.E. Lowdermik, who were the General contractor’s in charge of the rebuilding of the Railroad and roads after the flood would love to know if someone has pictures of the rebuilding?
Keith Tucker

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