The Floods of ’83

I lived in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1983. That year Utah got a lot of snow, with a good chunk of it falling late in the season. By June 1 our statewide snowpack levels reached 489%. On May 1 it was at 158%, so we had a percentage increase of 331 in a one month period. The state starting feeling the consequences starting in April, with most of the flooding terrorizing residents near the end of May.

One of the local newspapers printed a special edition near the end of June detailing the flooding events throughout the state with stories, pictures and charts. It had a big impact on me as I kept that newspaper edition and stored it with my memorabilia. I got it out the other day, scanned all the pages and then sent a digital copy to my family. I had talked about the Floods of ’83 for many years, now I wanted to show them the proof since they were going to experience some similar phenomenon this Spring as Utah’s statewide snow levels for 2023 overtook the 1983 levels.

Star Wars “Return of the Jedi” was released May 25, 1983. The only theater where you could see any of the Star Wars franchise films was the Centre Theater, which was located at 299 South State Street. The theater was sadly demolished in 1989. A few of my siblings and I ventured downtown to see the latest installment of George Lucas’ cinematic phenomenon. We parked our car in the ZCMI Center parking lot and headed toward the State Street mall exit to make our way to the theater. I remember walking through the doors and coming head on with a river, running down a main thoroughfare of the city. It was a surreal sight. The city needed to divert the excess water runoff flowing down City Creek and found that State Street met that criteria.

To get to the city center we drove on I-215 west and then caught I-15 heading north. After we merged onto I-15 I looked down from an overpass above 1300 South and saw a street turned into another river. To lower the water level of Mountain Dell Reservoir the city flooded 1300 South and diked it into a river with plastic, dirt and sandbags. It was quite a sight.

Late in May I drove to St. George to pick my cousin up from Dixie College. As I drove south on I-15, just past Provo I came upon a section of highway that was covered with water. The overflow water from Utah Lake had reached its way all the way to I-15. It was a bit discomfiting.

Cars and trucks slosh through water on temporary I-15 near Levan

I hadn’t ventured through Spanish Fork Canyon very often growing up. However, a few years later one of my sisters moved to Price. To visit her, we drove south on I-15, took the exit to Highway 89, drove through Spanish Fork Canyon, and then took Highway 6 and then 191 on to Price.
Right after you take the exit onto Highway 6 you are met with the remnants of the drained lake, and the ghost town of the once-submerged Thistle.
During the Floods of ’83, sodden with water from months of rain and snow, the mountain above the canyon town of Thistle gave way, plugging the Spanish Fork River and cutting off the key highway to Price and the Denver and Rio Grande railway link. The result was a lake that covered the little town of Thistle. Twenty-two families were forced to flee Thistle as the water rose. Men with heavy machinery battled overtime to stabilize the dam and eventually drain the lake to protect the canyon and city below.

Above Photo: The Thistle Shuttle–a boat heads away from the mudslide turned dam toward the west side of Thistle Lake, dodging submerged homes. Below Left Photo: the slide is clearly shown, with the lake backing up behind. Below Right Photo: a home lies submerged beneath the new lake.

My family lived on the east bench of Salt Lake City, so we endured Lake Effect snowstorms through the end of May. Below are some photos that my Dad took of our home and our neighborhood in late Spring. It was an event that stayed in my memory through the years and that I revisited often. And now exactly 40 years later Utah residents find themselves in the same predicament. It will be interesting to see if the infrastructure improvements made because of the Floods of ’83 provide a different outcome this time around.

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