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Arts & Culture

New OPB Documentary Tells the Story of Life in Vanport

“Vanport” airs November 14 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV and online

OPB is kicking off the 11th season of its original television series Oregon Experience with a new, one-hour documentary “Vanport.” It tells the story of Vanport, Oregon, which, in the early 1940s, was the second largest city in the state before a catastrophic flood destroyed it. It features firsthand accounts and personal stories of the people who lived there and rarely-seen archival film and images.  

“Vanport” airs Monday, November 14 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV and will be available to watch online at at the same time.  

Vanport City was created out of a national emergency. World War II had turned the Portland/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.     

By early 1942, nationally-known industrialist Henry J. Kaiser was operating three of the area’s largest shipyards. To help meet the demand for housing, Kaiser built the largest single federal wartime housing project in the country. Although located on a flood plain and surrounded by dikes and levees, Vanport was conveniently close to the shipyards. During its heyday, it was home to 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. It was a noisy 24-hour city, but offered progressive services—including grade schools that operated year round and 24-hour day care for preschool children.   

As the war came to a close, the shipyards laid workers off. Many of the transplanted workers decided to stay in the Northwest. In 1948, about 18,500 people still lived in the city, and about one-third of the population was African American.   

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; however, on Memorial Day weekend, one of the dikes collapsed and Vanport City disappeared under water in less than two hours— its flimsy buildings splintered and floated like corks.  

The new OPB documentary “Vanport” examines how the city was created and thrived. The story unfolds largely through very personal stories of former residents and rarely-seen archival film and images from a variety of sources. It includes firsthand accounts of what it was like to live there, to flee from fast rising waters, and the devastation after the flood.   Interviews include:

  • James Harrison, professor of History, Portland Community College, Cascade Campus
  • Carl Abbott, professor emeritus, Urban Studies & Planning, Portland State University
  • Jackie Winters, Oregon state senator and Vanport survivor
  • Ed Washington, former Metro councilor and Vanport survivor  

“Vanport” airs Monday, November 14 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV and will be available to watch online at at the same time. It is written and produced by Nadine Jelsing and edited by Lisa Suinn Kallem. More information is available at  

The community is invited to attend a public screening event for “Vanport” at McMenamins Kennedy School in Portland on Thursday, November 10 at 7 p.m. (doors open at 6:30 p.m.). The event is free and open to the public, and will include a Q&A with Producer Nadine Jelsing. More information is available via the Facebook event page.  

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