Vanport, Oregon

Vanport, Oregon

Vanport was a hastily constructed city of public housing located in Multnomah County, Oregon, United States, between the contemporary Portland city boundary and the Columbia River. (Currently the site of Delta Park and the Portland International Raceway.)cite web
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title = East Delta Park
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accessdate = 2006-12-19
] It was constructed in 1943 to house the workers at the wartime shipyards in Portland and Vancouver, Washington. Vanport 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 war time workers left the area. But, there was also an influx of returning World War II veterans. In order to attract veterans and their families, the Housing Authority of Portland (HAP) opened Vanport College. The college enrolled 1,924 students its first year.Center for Columbia River History, "Kaiserville: "A Muddy Miracle".]

Vanport was destroyed dramatically at 4:05 p.m. on May 30, 1948, when a convert|200|ft|m|adj=on section of the dike holding back the Columbia River collapsed during a flood, killing 15. The city was underwater by nightfall leaving its inhabitants homeless. The Vanport Extension Center refused to close after this 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.

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. Many have attributed the poor response, in both cases, to racist attitudes on the part of officials, who allegedly neglected to respond appropriately to the destruction of heavily-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.Portland State University Library Archives, Box 49.]


As 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.Hope Lunin Boyle, “The Effect of Living in Vanport City on the Behavior of its Inhabitants,” (Masters thesis, University of Oregon Department of Sociology), 114.]

Underneath the apathy and dissatisfaction lay a strong sense of patriotism. Of those who moved to Vanport, a vast majority cited a desire to aid the war effort as their primary motivation. Work elsewhere offered better wages and living conditions, but the shipyards offered a chance to aid the country. Like soldiers proud to serve their country but eager to return home, Vanport’s workers seemed to tolerate their otherwise intolerable surroundings until the war ended.Charlotte Kilbourne and Margaret Lantis, “Elements of Tenant Instability in a War Housing Project,” "American Sociological Review", 11, no. 1 (1946): 60.]

This atmosphere changed at the end of World War II. HAP sought to attract World War II veterans seeking 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.Center for Columbia River History, "Kaiserville: "A Muddy Miracle".]

Race relations

The establishment of Vanport coincided with an unprecedented influx of African-Americans into Oregon. 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.Manley Maben, "Vanport" (Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1987), 86] 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.” During the 1920s, Oregon had one of the largest and most active chapters of the Ku Klux Klan outside of the Deep South. Despite this, racism was not broadly institutionalized among white Portlanders because the target black community was so small. Nonetheless, Berry argued that prior to the war the city exhibited remarkably unprogressive racial attitudes.]

The hastily constructed wartime development’s social and cultural mores had little in common with Portland as a whole. Vanport’s in-migrants 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.Manley Maben, "Vanport", 93]

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.Manley Maben, Vanport, 91.] 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.Manley Maben, "Vanport", 94.]

Despite the unprecedented level of integration and lack of any major racial incidents or severe tensions, hostility towards blacks seemed to stay right below the surface. In a survey of residents performed by a Reed College student, by far the most common complaint against the city’s community facilities was that “Negroes and Whites [lived in the] same neighborhood.”Kessler, The social structure of a war housing community, 123.]


Vanport was especially vulnerable to flooding, since it was built on reclaimed lowlands along the Columbia River. In the days prior to the flood, record spring runoff caused a steep rise in the water levels to a record convert|23|ft|m above flood stage.Taylor, George H. and Raymond R. Hatton. [ The Oregon Weather Book: A State of Extremes.] Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press. 1999.] At this point, the lowest point in Vanport was about convert|15|ft|m| below the water level in the river.

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 on Sunday, May 30, 1948, the Housing Authority of Portland issued the following statement:



At about 4:17 PM the western (railroad) dike burst, sending a convert|10|ft|m|adj=on wall of water into the area of Vanport College. 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 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.


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.” The flood that wiped out the district, he continued, was a benefit in that it allowed blacks to further integrate into Portland’s society.“Vanport Deemed Ghetto,” "Oregon Journal", March 10, 1952.]

To prevent future incidents, congress enacted the Flood Control Act of 1950 which spawned projects such as the Priest Rapids Dam.

Today, Vanport is the site of Delta Park, the Portland International Raceway, Heron Lakes Golf Course and a light rail station that includes artwork commemorating the flood.


External links

* [ Aerial view of 1948 flood]
* [ Vanport City, the 1948 Vanport Flood, and the Vanport Wetlands] with photos of gauge comparing 1894, 1948, and 1996 floods
* [ War Production page] at Oregon Historical Society
* [ Kaiserville: "A Muddy Miracle"] at Center for Columbia River History
* [ Vanport page] at The Oregon Encyclopedia

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