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Front Page » November 15, 2011 » Carbon County News » 1983: The year of the great Thistle mudslide
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1983: The year of the great Thistle mudslide

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The year of 1983 was a sad year for Sun Advocate followers, because the year began with former publisher Hal MacKnight dying of an apparent heart attack in Salt Lake in mid-January. MacKnight, who is still the person who owned the Sun Advocate franchise longer than anyone or any company, had sold the paper in 1966 to Bob Finney and a group of investors from California.

MacKnight, who was also recently inducted in the Utah Publishers Hall of Fame, started working for Robert Crockett at The Sun newspaper when he was just a boy, and eventually became a co-owner of the combined Sun and News-Advocate paper that came together with Val Cowles in the early 1930s. By the end of the 1940s he was the sole owner of the Sun Advocate.

In his final editorial in March of 1966 he said he was sad to be leaving the paper but that the American way of doing things was a great accomplishment. He said "In this country the will of a man cannot transcend the will of the people and they have proven it in the privacy of their voting booths." MacKnight was 77 at the time of his death.

Early spring brought word about two different projects that would someday have a great impact on the Carbon County area. The first was that the 1983 state legislature finally appropriated enough money so that the College of Eastern Utah could build a new athletic facility, which is today known as the Bunnell-Dmitrich Athletic Center (BDAC). Up unto that time, the college had the old gymnasium that stood where the Jennifer Leavitt Student Center stands today, and they played many of their basketball games at the Price National Guard Armory. It had taken the area 12 years of lobbying and fighting with state officials to get the center approved and it would take a few years before it was actually built, but the new center would be opened in the mid-1980s.

The second announcement brought what was then the first really big box store to Price: Kmart. On March 7 it was formally announced that the chain would locate a store next to the Creekview Shopping Center in the southwest part of the city. At the time preliminary approval had not been forthcoming, but it was only a matter of time till the big new store was being constructed.

While new things were going up in town, something big and long lasting was coming to an end. On April 24, the Rio Grande Zephyr was to make its last run from Salt Lake through Carbon County and on to Denver. Rio Grande had been trying to shut down the line for years, but the government kept ordering the railroad to keep it running. Its final year proved a $3 million loss to the company. It was replaced with Amtrack running what it calls the California Zephyr, but many at the time felt it would never be the same.

But that last run on the old tracks never happened, at least the way and when it was planned because the biggest event of the year took place in mid-April, when a massive mudslide in the Billy's Mountain area of Spanish Fork Canyon covered the tracks and the highway, and drowned the city of Thistle in a back up of water that became know unofficially as Lake Thistle. The spring of 1983 was not only the wettest on record, but the winter before had been one of the snowiest.

Far underground on the south slopes of the canyon the ground started to move. A billion tons of rock, gravel and dirt slid into a canyon that had been carved by the stream located there for many millennia. It literally closed off the shortest access to central eastern Utah, and vehicles either needed to travel I-70, traverse Fairview Canyon through Fountain Green and onto Nephi to I-15 or go north through Indian Canyon to get around the mess.

Even worse, rail traffic completely stopped up the canyon, hurting shipments of already suffering coal mines' production. In an almost overnight occurrence, the rail lines were 70 feet under the mud, and it was growing thicker by the hour. In the past when things went bad for the coal industry, at least area retailers could count on some help in the form of tourism. But the closed road ended that though for the summer of 1983. Even the Greyhound Bus line would not be running through town until something was done.

If the first few days business in the area was reported down between 20-50 percent, and the season for travel had not even hit yet. Within three weeks state and federal officials had asked for and then gotten a disaster relief fund set up by President Ronald Reagan. And by mid-May the Utah Department of Transportation had begun to design a new highway that would run around the slide area, trekking up and over the once imposing Billy's Mountain.

Surveyors went to work immediately, but the project would be a long one because of the cuts and the climb the road would take. But when bids came in for the construction the costs were higher than expected with the initial bid for the six and one half mile project coming in at almost $23 million.

Meanwhile accidents and equipment problems plagued the workers who were trying to drain Lake Thistle. The lake needed to be drained because engineers felt that the mud and rock that were in the dam created by nature was not stable enough to handle all the water that was backing up behind it (in May rising as much as a foot and one half a day).

If the dam had broken Spanish Fork and surrounding towns could be inundated. Around the state flooding was making national headlines that spring as record snows came down in torrents of water with temperatures rising into the 90s very quickly. It was the year of the makeshift canal down State Street in downtown Salt Lake and many other streams that flooded and caused destruction. Lost in the national news was the town of Thistle which no longer existed except as floating roofs and flotsam along Lake Thistle's quickly forming beaches.

To top it off, water came out of the Scofield area like never before with flooding making its presence know in Carbon County along with the rest of the state.

It would be a long hot summer, one that most residents of Carbon County who live here at the time remember well.

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