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Vanport


During the early 1940s, Vanport, Oregon, was the second largest city in the state. But on a Sunday afternoon in May 1948, it disappeared completely — destroyed by a catastrophic flood.

A national emergency had created the city. World War II  turned the Portland-and-Vancouver area into a major shipbuilding hub, and many thousands of workers from across the country began arriving for jobs in the shipyards. The Northwest migration caused a major housing shortage in the Portland area.  

Aerial of Vanport

Aerial of Vanport

Courtesy Portland City Archive and Records, A2001.025.626

By early 1942 nationally known industrialist Henry J. Kaiser was operating three major shipyards in the area. He was building ships quickly for the war effort, but Portland was lagging far behind in providing housing. Impatient with city officials, Kaiser acquired funds directly from the federal government and proceeded to build the largest single federal wartime housing project in the country. Although built on a flood plain and surrounded by dikes and levees, Vanport was conveniently close to the shipyards. During its heyday it housed about 42,000 workers and their children.

The city was built quickly and never meant to be permanent. The crowded apartment buildings were prefabricated and lacked cement foundations.  A noisy, 24-hour city, it also offered progressive services, including grade schools that operated year round, 24-hour day care for preschool children and the first black school teachers in Oregon. The housing was segregated: blacks were steered towards certain parts of town, whites to another — but the schools were integrated. Children of all races learned together and played together.

Vanport children

Vanport children

Courtesy Portland City Archive and Records, A2001.025.648

As the war came to a close, the shipyards laid workers off.  Many of the transplanted workers — both black and white — decided to stay in the Northwest. And that presented a problem for Portland. Discriminatory banking and real estate practices prevented African-Americans from buying or renting in most parts of the city. As more whites were able to move out and find alternative housing, Vanport City became increasingly African-American.

Lifeline

Lifeline

Courtesy Oregon Historical Society, OrHi52428

In 1948, about 18,500 people still lived in the city. About one-third of the population was black. That spring, heavy snowfall in the mountains and sudden warm temperatures sent a torrent of water down the Columbia River. Vanporters were assured that the dikes would hold. But on Memorial Day weekend, one of the dikes collapsed. Vanport City disappeared under water in less than two hours. The catastrophic regional flood produced a sea of refugees – many with few options for permanent housing. 

Flood destruction

Flood destruction

Courtesy Oregon Historical Society, Neg. 67592

This is the story of Vanport: what it was like to live there, how it suddenly ended, and how it changed the face of Portland.  

Resources and Information

Books

  • Carl Abbott, Portland: Planning, Politics, and Growth in a Twentieth Century City, University of Nebraska Press, 1983.
  • Manley Maben, Vanport, Oregon Historical Society Press, 1987
  • Zita Podany, Vanport, Arcadia Publishing, 2016

Articles

  • Karen J. Gibson, “Bleeding Albina: A History of Community Disinvestment, 1940-2000,” Transforming Anthropology, Vol 15, No. 1, pp. 3-225.
  • Stuart McElderry, “Building a West Coast Ghetto: African-American Housing in Portland, 1910-1960,” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 92, No. 3, pp. 137-148.
  • Stuart McElderry, “The Vanport Conspiracy Rumors and Social Relations in Wartime and Post-War Portland,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 99, No 2, pp. 134-163.
  • Rudy Pearson, “A Menace to the Neighborhood: Housing and African Americans in Portland,”  1941-1945, Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 102, No. 2, pp. 158-179.
  • Dale Skovgaard, “Oregon Voices: Memories of the 1948 Vanport Flood,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol 108, No. 1, pp. 88-106.
  • Natasha Geiling, “How Oregon’s Second Largest City Vanished in a Day,”  Smithsonian Magazine, February 2015

Websites

 

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Proclamation

On May 28, 2016, Vanport Mosaic organized a Vanport survivor's reunion at Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church in North Portland. Part of the celebration included a reading of the Proclamation from Mayor Charlie Hales declaring a Vanport Day of Remembrance. Singer Marilyn Keller with pianist George Mitchell accompany excerpts from the proclamation with the folk song, Eyes on the Prize.

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During the early 1940s there were thousands of children living in Vanport with their families. To this day the schools and teachers there are still described as excellent. Former Metro Councilor and Vanport survivor Edward Washington remembers how the schools impacted him personally.

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When the flood washed away Vanport in 1948, the official death toll was 15. Many survivors doubted the low number and rumors quickly spread. Some even questioned the circumstances surrounding the break in the railroad embankment. History and Humanities Professor James Harrison talks about some of the rumors and why they surfaced.

Celebration

In May 2016, Vanport Mosaic and the City of Portland celebrated the history and legacy of Vanport with a variety of speakers and activities at the Vanport site. Several of the participants share thoughts about the once thriving city.

Restoration

Vanport was built on a flood plain and was never meant to be permanent. Albeit surrounded by dikes and levies, the 1948 flood destroyed the city completely. Over the years the City of Portland has worked to restore parts of the site and surrounding area with native trees and plants. Susan Barthel, from Portland's Environmental Services, explains.