Vanport, Oregon

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Vanport, Oregon
Former city destroyed by flood
Vanport street scene.jpg
Vanport in 1943, five years before the flood
USA Oregon location map.svg
Red pog.svg
Vanport, Oregon
Location within the state of Oregon
Coordinates: 45°36′07″N122°42′00″W / 45.60194°N 122.70000°W / 45.60194; -122.70000 Coordinates: 45°36′07″N122°42′00″W / 45.60194°N 122.70000°W / 45.60194; -122.70000
Country United States
State Oregon
County Multnomah
23 ft (7 m)
Time zone UTC-8 (Pacific)
  Summer (DST) UTC-7 (Pacific)
GNIS feature ID1128512 [1]

Vanport, sometimes referred to as Vanport City or Kaiserville, [1] was a hastily constructed city of wartime public housing in Multnomah County, Oregon, United States, between the contemporary Portland city boundary and the Columbia River. It is currently the site of Delta Park and the Portland International Raceway. [2]

Public housing residential properties owned by a government

Public housing is a form of housing tenure in which the property is owned by a government authority, which may be central or local.

Multnomah County, Oregon County in the United States

Multnomah County is one of 36 counties in the U.S. state of Oregon. As of the 2010 United States Census, the county's population was 735,334. Its county seat, Portland, is the state's largest city. Multnomah County is part of the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA Metropolitan Statistical Area, and though smallest in area, it is the state's most populous county.

Portland, Oregon City in Oregon, United States

Portland is the largest and most populous city in the U.S. state of Oregon and the seat of Multnomah County. It is a major port in the Willamette Valley region of the Pacific Northwest, at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. As of 2018, Portland had an estimated population of 653,115, making it the 25th most populated city in the United States, and the second-most populous in the Pacific Northwest. Approximately 2.4 million people live in the Portland metropolitan statistical area (MSA), making it the 25th most populous MSA in the United States. Its Combined Statistical Area (CSA) ranks 19th-largest with a population of around 3.2 million. Approximately 60% of Oregon's population resides within the Portland metropolitan area.



Vanport construction began in August 1942 to house the workers at the wartime Kaiser Shipyards in Portland and Vancouver, Washington. Vanport—a portmanteau of "Vancouver" and "Portland"—was home to 40,000 people, about 40 percent of them African-American, making it Oregon's second-largest city at the time, and the largest public housing project in the nation. After the war, Vanport lost more than half of its population, dropping to 18,500, as many wartime workers left the area. However, there was also an influx of returning World War II veterans. In order to attract veterans and their families, the Housing Authority of Portland opened a college named the Vanport Extension Center; [3] the school would eventually be renamed Portland State University. [4]

Kaiser Shipyards shipbuilding yards on the West Coast of the United States

The Kaiser Shipyards were seven major shipbuilding yards located on the United States west coast during World War II. Kaiser ranked 20th among U.S. corporations in the value of wartime production contracts. The shipyards were owned by the Kaiser Shipbuilding Company, a creation of American industrialist Henry J. Kaiser (1882–1967), who established the shipbuilding company around 1939 in order to help meet the construction goals set by the United States Maritime Commission for merchant shipping.

Vancouver, Washington City in Washington, United States

Vancouver is a city on the north bank of the Columbia River in the U.S. state of Washington, and the largest suburb of Portland, Oregon. Incorporated in 1857, it is the fourth largest city in the state, with a population of 161,791 as of April 1, 2010 census. Vancouver is the county seat of Clark County and forms part of the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area, the 23rd largest metropolitan area in the United States. Originally established in 1825 around Fort Vancouver, a fur-trading outpost, the city is located on the Washington/Oregon border along the Columbia River, directly north of Portland. In 2005, Money magazine named it No. 91 on its list of best places in America to live. In 2016, WalletHub ranked Vancouver the 89th best place in the US for families to live.

A portmanteau or portmanteau word is a linguistic blend of words, in which parts of multiple words or their phones (sounds) are combined into a new word, as in smog, coined by blending smoke and fog, or motel, from motor and hotel. In linguistics, a portmanteau is defined as a single morph that represents two or more morphemes.

Vanport was dramatically destroyed at 4:05 p.m. on May 30, 1948, when a 200-foot (60 m) section of a railroad berm holding back the Columbia River collapsed during a flood, killing 15. The city was underwater by nightfall, leaving 17,500 of its inhabitants homeless.


The city was a hub of transient laborers from all corners of the country; few residents had any long-term connections with each other and little opportunity or interest to build them. The temporary nature of the new city contributed to an overall sense of insecurity and anxiety among residents. The lack of businesses and recreation opportunities contributed to a sense of distrust, and the relative isolation of the largely male workforce meant there was little demand for community institutions such as a newspaper or high school. [5]

By 194344, families living in Vanport were moving out at the rate of 100 a day. [6] A questionnaire mailed to 1,000 former Vanport families, selected randomly from the approximately 3,000 families who had left by then, asked, among other things, why they had moved to Vanport in the first place. About 230 people answered this question. The top reason given for choosing the PortlandVancouver shipyards was that "they thought it their duty to go into defense work". [6] The second-ranked reason was a desire for a better job, and the third, higher wages. [6] However, the situation changed when the war ended in 1945. The Housing Authority of Portland (HAP) then sought to attract World War II veterans who needed housing, a community to raise their families, and higher education through the Servicemen's Readjustment Act (G.I. Bill). The establishment of a college at Vanport in 1946 was a key part of the strategy to keep Vanport a thriving Oregon community. [3]

G.I. Bill United States law that provided a range of benefits for returning World War II veterans

The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the G.I. Bill, was a law that provided a range of benefits for returning World War II veterans. It was passed by the 78th United States Congress and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 22, 1944. The original G.I. Bill expired in 1956, but the term "G.I. Bill" is still used to refer to programs created to assist U.S. military veterans.

Race relations

The establishment of Vanport coincided with an unprecedented influx of African-Americans into Oregon. Due to exclusionary racist laws, the state had a population of fewer than 1,800 blacks in 1940; by 1946 more than 15,000 lived in the Portland area, mostly in Vanport and other segregated housing districts. [7] One prewar observer, Portland Urban League secretary Edwin C. Berry, described Portland as a " 'northern' city with a 'southern' exposure", arguing that the city shared with southern cities "traditions, attitudes, and things interracial in character." Berry argued that prior to the war the city exhibited remarkably unprogressive racial attitudes. [8]

The Oregon black exclusion laws were attempts to prevent black people from settling within the borders of the settlement and eventual U.S. state of Oregon. The first such law took effect in 1844, when the Provisional Government of Oregon voted to exclude all black settlers from Oregon's borders. The law authorized a punishment for any black settler remaining in the territory to be whipped with "not less than twenty nor more than thirty-nine stripes" for every six months they remained. Additional laws aimed at African Americans entering Oregon were ratified in 1849 and 1857. The last of these laws was repealed in 1926. The laws, born of anti-slavery and anti-black beliefs, were often justified as a reaction to fears of blacks instigating Native American uprisings.

The hastily constructed wartime development's social and cultural mores had little in common with Portland as a whole. Vanport's immigrants imported their particular brands of racism from throughout the country. White migrants from the South were the most vocal in opposing the degree of integration that HAP dictated for schools, buses and work sites. The Authority was largely unsympathetic to these complaints and at no time was de jure segregation imposed on any of Vanport's facilities. When police were called because black men were dancing with white women at a local event, only the white women were detained and warned that their conduct might lead to a race riot. [9]

In law and government, de jure describes practices that are legally recognised, regardless whether the practice exists in reality. In contrast, de facto describes situations that exist in reality, even if not legally recognised. The terms are often used to contrast different scenarios: for a colloquial example, "I know that, de jure, this is supposed to be a parking lot, but now that the flood has left four feet of water here, it's a de facto swimming pool". To further explain, even if the signs around the flooded parking lot say "Parking Lot" it is "in fact" a swimming pool.

Racial segregation separation of humans

Racial segregation is the systemic separation of people into racial or other ethnic groups in daily life. It may apply to activities such as eating in a restaurant, drinking from a water fountain, using a public toilet, attending school, going to the movies, riding on a bus, or in the rental or purchase of a home or of hotel rooms. Segregation is defined by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance as "the act by which a person separates other persons on the basis of one of the enumerated grounds without an objective and reasonable justification, in conformity with the proposed definition of discrimination. As a result, the voluntary act of separating oneself from other people on the basis of one of the enumerated grounds does not constitute segregation". According to the UN Forum on Minority Issues, "The creation and development of classes and schools providing education in minority languages should not be considered impermissible segregation, if the assignment to such classes and schools is of a voluntary nature".

HAP never had any explicit policy advocating segregation; nonetheless, for various reasons de facto segregation was the norm. Whites complained when placed near "black" areas, and segregation of Vanport by neighborhood might as well have been enforced legally. [10] Only in 1944 were complaints raised about the segregation situation in the city. Reacting to the criticism—and pressure from Eleanor Roosevelt—by April 1944, HAP began placing incoming blacks into the "white" areas of the settlement. However, word quickly spread and 63 white residents quickly signed a petition demanding a reversal of the policy. Entire buildings were free in the "black" areas of town, they argued, and after opponents of the integration plan appeared at a HAP meeting the authority decided to resume its previous policies. [11]

The unprecedented level of integration and lack of any major racial incidents or severe tensions did not mean there were no problems. Black/white tensions were still a part of Vanport life as well as a problem in relating to Portland. A 1943–44 study published in the American Sociological Review indicates that the top five complaints from Vanport residents included "negroes and whites in same neighborhood", "negroes and whites in same school", and "discrimination against Vanport people by Portlanders". [6]

Although some of Portland's blacks lived in 53 of the city's 60 census tracts before the war, about half were concentrated in two tracts east of the Willamette River and north of the eastwest centerline of the city. [12] After the war, much of Portland's black community remained centered in northeastern parts of the city. [13]

The Vanport Flood parallels the more recent Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans. In both cases, public officials led the population to believe that the damage would be slight, and in both cases the government response to the disaster was harshly criticized. Critics attributed the poor response, in both cases, to racist attitudes on the part of officials, who pointedly neglected to respond appropriately to the destruction of predominately black communities. However, many dispute the role of racism, pointing to the transformation of Vanport by the influx of World War II veterans and their families and official commitment to the area shown by the establishment at Vanport of the only state college in the greater Portland metropolitan area. [14]


Overturned cars in the aftermath of the Vanport flood, 1948 Vanport flood overturned cars.jpg
Overturned cars in the aftermath of the Vanport flood, 1948

Vanport was especially vulnerable to flooding, since it was built on reclaimed lowlands along the Columbia River. The Columbia Basin is a massive area encompassing seven U.S. states and British Columbia, Canada. The previous winter snowpack was 75 to 135% of normal. Above normal temperatures accompanied two major rainstorms May 19 to 23, 1948, and again May 26 to 29. [15] Rainfall combined with melt water swelled the many tributaries feeding the Columbia in the days prior to the flood, creating high water levels not seen since the record flood of 1894. [16] The lowest point in Vanport was about 15 feet (4.6 m) below the water level in the river. [17]

A radio alert was issued the night before the flood, and some residents moved their belongings into attics and upper floors. Few imagined the possible extent to which the water levels would rise. Another contributing factor to the lack of voluntary evacuation was the fact that many residents relied solely on public transportation.

On the morning of Memorial Day, May 30, 1948, the Housing Authority of Portland issued the following statement: "Remember: Dikes are safe at present. You will be warned if necessary. You will have time to leave. Don't get excited." [18] [19]

Aerial view of the Vanport flood, looking west from North Denver Avenue on June 15, 1948 Aerial view of vanport flooded.jpg
Aerial view of the Vanport flood, looking west from North Denver Avenue on June 15, 1948

At about 4:17 p.m. the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway berm burst, [17] sending a 10-foot (3 m) wall of water into the area of Vanport College. According to a historical marker, the break happened at an old railroad cut that had been filled in. [20] Because of the numerous sloughs and backwaters in the area, the progress of the flood was delayed about 30 minutes, giving residents more time to escape.

An emergency siren began to sound shortly after the initial breach, and residents began to head up North Denver Avenue to higher ground.

At the time of the flood, the population of Vanport was down to about 18,500 people. Because of the holiday, many residents were away from their homes for the day. These factors contributed to the low loss of life: there were only 15 deaths. Nonetheless, the city was a complete loss.

On June 11, 1948, President Harry S Truman flew to Portland to examine the damage. [21] The recovery effort was assisted by Vanport College and the Red Cross. [22]


Vanport led Portland and Oregon in integrating blacks. "The first black teachers and policemen in the state were hired in Vanport during the war years". [23] One of those black teachers, Martha Jordan, later became the first black teacher hired by Portland Public Schools. [24]

Vanport College plaque near Lincoln Hall at Portland State University Vanport College.jpg
Vanport College plaque near Lincoln Hall at Portland State University

Vanport's destruction eased the integration of a large African-American population into North and Northeast Portland. Indeed, some black leaders argued that the flood was ultimately beneficial for the city's black community. Vanport, argued National Urban League director Lester Granger, was a "nasty, segregated ghetto" where "negroes lived in the same patterns as they did in the South."[ citation needed ] The flood that wiped out the district, he continued, was a benefit in that it allowed blacks to further integrate into Portland's society. [25]

To prevent future incidents, Congress enacted the Flood Control Act of 1950 which spawned projects such as the Priest Rapids Dam. The flood also resulted in the 1961 Columbia River Treaty and later the construction of Libby Dam in Montana.

The loss of Vanport is considered a factor in the eventual closing of the Jantzen Beach Amusement Park on Hayden Island. [26] Several acres of the former city became "West Delta Park" which is now the Portland International Raceway. The Vanport Extension Center refused to close after the flood disaster and quickly reopened in downtown Portland. Dubbed by a national magazine "The College that Wouldn't Die," it became present-day Portland State University.

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  1. 1 2 3 "Vanport City (historical)". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey. November 28, 1980. Retrieved June 21, 2014.
  2. "East Delta Park". Portland Parks & Recreation. Retrieved December 19, 2006.
  3. 1 2 "Kaiserville: A Muddy Miracle". Center for Columbia River History. Retrieved June 21, 2014.
  5. Lunin Boyle, Hope (1946). The Effect of Living in Vanport City on the Behavior of Its Inhabitants (Thesis). Eugene, Oregon: University of Oregon Department of Sociology. p. 114.
  6. 1 2 3 4 Kilbourn, Charlotte & Lantis, Margaret (February 1946). "Elements of Tenant Instability in a War Housing Project". American Sociological Review. 11: 57–66. doi:10.2307/2085277. Archived from the original (reprinted by Center for Columbia River History) on June 24, 2016.
  7. Maben 1987, p. 86.
  8. Berry, Edwin C. (November 1945). "Profiles: Portland". Journal of Educational Sociology. American Sociological Association. 19 (3): 158. doi:10.2307/2263420.
  9. Maben 1987, p. 93.
  10. Maben 1987, p. 91.
  11. Maben 1987, p. 94.
  12. Maben 1987, p. 92.
  13. Stroud, Ellen (1999). "Troubled Waters in Ecotopia: Environmental Racism in Portland, Oregon" (PDF). Radical History Review. New York, N.Y.: MARHO (74): 65–95. ISSN   0163-6545 . Retrieved June 24, 2014.
  14. Portland State University Library Archives, Box 49.
  15. Speers, Douglas D.; Barcellos, Daniel J.; Wortman, Randal T. (1990). "The 1948 Flood on the Columbia River" (PDF). Retrieved July 12, 2017.
  16. "USGS Real-Time Water Data for USGS 14105700 Columbia River at the Dalles, OR". United States Geological Survey. Retrieved July 12, 2011.
  17. 1 2 Taylor & Hatton 1999, p. 93.
  18. Maben 1987, p. 106.
  19. Freeman, Jaeger, and Taylor, "Report on Flood Disaster," 2,3;
  20. Vanport history sign, from The Columbia River - Vanport, the 1948 Vanport Flood, and the Vanport Wetlands
  21. Peters, Gerhard; Woolley, John T., eds. "Harry S. Truman: 126 - Rear Platform and Other Informal Remarks in Oregon, June 11, 1948". The American Presidency Project. University of California Santa Barbara. Retrieved February 11, 2019.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  22. Epler, Stephen E. (1980). John Eliot Allen (ed.). Portland State University: The First 25 Years: 19551980. Portland State University. OCLC   16732141.
  23. Pearson, Rudy. "Vanport (19421948)". African American History in the American West: Online Encyclopedia of Significant People and Places. Retrieved June 21, 2014.
  24. Tim Hills, "Swept Away: Vanport and the Memorial Day Flood" Kennedy School, Portland, Oregon, May 18, 2009
  25. "Vanport Deemed Ghetto," Oregon Journal, March 10, 1952.
  26. Jantzen Beach Amusement Park was heralded as Portland’s Million Dollar Playground. When it opened on May 26, 1928, Jantzen Beach was the largest amusement park in the nation. The park sprawled over 123 acres at Hayden Island at the northern tip of Portland.

Works cited