The story of Vanport is a critical narrative woven into Portland’s water history, and gives a hint at the dynamic nature of river/city interactions, along with formative context for race and class relations that shaped the community, both in positive and negative ways. This 2016 documentary from the Oregon Experience provides a compelling and well illustrated history of the Vanport community that’s worth a watch.
From the cover of the video: “During the early 1940s, Vanport, Oregon was the second largest city in the state and the single-largest federal housing project in the country. Built quickly to house men and women coming to work in the Portland/Vancouver shipyards during World War II, Vanport boasted some 42,000 residents at its peak and offered progressive services for its diverse population. But one afternoon in 1948, a catastrophic flood destroyed the entire city, leaving about 18,500 people still living there suddenly homeless. Vanport tells the story of a forgotten city: how it was created and once thrived; and how it changed the region forever. It features first hand, personal accounts of former residents and dramatic, rarely-seen archival film and images.”
The origin story here is around World War II, and the wartime shipbuilding, and Henry J. Kaiser, who operated 3 major shipyards that built over – two in Portland, in St. Johns and Swan Island, and another across the river in Vancouver, which built over 750 ships and employed around 100,000 people at their peak in the early 1940s.
In order to house the growing and diverse population of shipbuilders, who were coming for a mix of opportunity and patriotism, Kaiser proposed in 1942 to build what would become the largest wartime housing project in the United States, a new community of over 40,000 people in a 650 acre tract wedged between the Columbia River and Columbia Slough in North Portland. The plan of the community, completed in 1943, shows the general layout, including over 9,900 individual apartments, built cheaply and quickly. The size and diversity of the community, which included a diversity of White, Black, Asian, and Native American workers, as well as a large percentage of the workforce made up of women, who were recruited from all around the country to come to Portland to support the war effort.
From the documentary, the community also had a hospital, police station, library, fire station, transit, shopping, grocery, schools, recreation centers and even a move theater. While there was an effort to make the community livable, and improve ‘quality of life’, the goal was also production, with buses ferrying workers to and from shipyards, which operated 24 hours a day.
The relationship of the plan is woven around water, and the history of flooding of the wetlands and sloughs within which Vanport was built could be said to be both amenity and omen. Some images from the documentary show life around these waterways, including beaches on one of the two lakes, and some exploration around the Slough and it’s tributaries that wove throughout the community.
As mentioned in the documentary, the cafeteria was located adjacent to the beach on one of the lakes, with water-loving cottonwoods woven throughout. And beyond what was referred to as a “slightly ill-kempt public park”, kids found waters of the Slough the real playground, using make-shift rafts to find turtles, bullfrogs, and tadpoles.
Post World-War II the idea was for the temporary city to be demolished, and as people starting moving out, some structures were removed. A housing crisis kept Vanport a necessity, as a combination of post-internment Japanese, blacks who could not find housing due to red-lining in the greater Portland area, and lack of housing for post-war returning soldiers, all combining to provide affordable, if somewhat ramshackle, housing for a variety of residents. There was also a Vanport College, founded in some of the vacant buildings, which eventually became Portland State University. For the growing Portland area, “mud on the shoes” meant you were from Vanport, which was seen by the greater Portland community through the lenses of racism as a slum.
In the winter of 1947-48, conditions started to shift towards catastrophe. Heavy snowfall coupled with more intense spring rains swelled the Columbia Rise, which flowed in mid-May at a rate of 900,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), which was almost double the normal flow. This led to the need for reinforcing dikes and sandbagging, along with regular patrols by the Army Corps of Engineers to ensure the perimeter was solid. At this point, there was a question of whether to evacuate, and an emergency meeting was held, but the thinking was that the dikes would hold, and if not people would get plenty of warming. A few days later things changed dramatically.
The entire Vanport area, as former lowlands, was surrounding on all four sides with dikes in order to keep the adjacent waters at bay. The massive vulnerability of the perimeter meant a lot of potential failure points. The dike along the railroad lines to the northwest of Vanport separated Smith Lake from the lower-lying Vanport area was just that failure point, seen in the map below.
The 30′ berm was ostensibly about protection of the railroad, so the integrity to hold that massive amount of water back during a huge flood event was less a priority, so water levels from Smith Lake started spilling over the dike, the railroad berm started degrading with water boils appearing and seeping thorugh, and on 4:17pm on the May 30th, the breach happened, as mentioned, a “600 foot section melted away.”
Sirens blared, and people grabbed anything they could get their hands on to evacuated to nearby Kenton. As people recounted stories of “a wall of water” and climbed to their roofs to be rescued, it was exacerbated by the housing, which was built cheaply and without solid foundations, which began to float around, knocking into each other, as seen in the images below.
The sloughs filled up with the initial flows, so people had 30 minutes to escape. With only one route available, Denver Avenue, the road was quickly jammed, and people started fearing that this area would also fail, so continued to sandbag and reinforce this zone, and people started walking through water as vehicles and buses were stuck. By Monday morning, Denver Avenue was also breached, along with other perimeter dikes, inundating the entire community. The extent of flooding wasn’t localized to Vanport, as it impacted the entire city and it was estimated to have caused over $100 million in damages throughout the basin. The displacement of 1000s of people meant that the flooding of Vanport was some of the biggest impacts, and they were long-lasting well after the water subsided.
There have been a number of stories that have covered the events around Vanport life and flooding, including loss of life, as well as its aftermath, such as investigating the absence of accountability for inaction on evacuation and the lack of dike maintenance that could have prevented the disaster. I’ve not seen critical analysis in general of the general wisdom of occupying the spaces and places like Vanport and its flood susceptibility, which were chosen hastily to fill a need, such as emergency housing in war-time, but are perhaps much less suitable for people to live long-term. Should the city have been demolished after ship-building slowed? It shows the impacts of larger social forces on disasters, and the brunt of that impact being felt by frontline communities.
Some of that aftermath is capture in this snippet from the Oregon Encyclopedia: “Refugees crowded into Portland, a city still recovering from the war. Part of the problem was race, for more than a thousand of the flooded families were African Americans who could find housing only in the growing ghetto in North Portland. The flood also sparked unfounded but persistent rumors in the African American community that the Housing Authority had deliberately withheld warnings about the flood and the city had concealed a much higher death toll.”
The erasure of that history is part of this larger story, with little remnant or physical marking of the place and event as what was left of Vanport was demolished, burned, or auctioned., which is now occupied in parts with West Delta Park, Portland International Raceway, and Heron Lakes Golf Course. As summed up in the Oregon Experience, there is to this day:
“Little to remind anyone of a ‘once thriving city.'”
It an important piece of history around both race, building, and hydrology to investigate in Portland, so expect to hear more about this. The Vanport Mosaic site provides a great opportunity to learn more, and there are some other films on the topic, including a documentary ‘Vanport and the Columbia River Floods of 1948‘, produced by the National Weather Service, and ‘The Wake of Vanport‘, produced by local independent paper The Skanner in 2016.
HEADER: Image of flooding with newspaper Headline – via Oregon Experience