Friday, May 30, 2008

Vanport City and the Flood of 1948

Sixty years ago the railroad dike broke and flood waters rushed in covering the second largest city in Oregon—as well as a long stretch of low land on the Oregon side of the Columbia River from Portland to Gresham.

Here's a bit of footage taken of the flood waters:

Vanport began as a housing project for the influx of workers coming to Portland to work at the Oregon Shipyards during World War II. The war effort needed lots of workers in round the clock shifts. The population of Vanport grew to almost 40,000 people.

Metro Councilman Ed Washington remembered his life in Vanport as a young black resident in somewhat idyllic terms.

No, other than to say that it was a wonderful place to grow up as a kid. The memories of growing up and living there have never left me. I have friends and we still converse about growing up in Vanport. It was sort of a magic place for kids. It was just different. I think part of it is that we were all thrown together there during this tumultuous time during the Second World War where life was really being lived to it’s fullest. It was thriving. Lots of different people. Woods to play in, sloughs to play in, bikes to ride, skateboards to scooter. Skateboards to make, you know tops to spin, the yo-yos to throw down and caseons to roll down the sidewalk through the wash houses. It was a wonderful place, an ideal place for a kid and it was pretty safe.

After 1945, with the war effort shut down, workers left, and the population dropped to about 19,000. But Vanport was determined to keep its smaller city community life alive. Returning war veterans needed housing for the families they were starting or expanding. It was housing Portland didn't have.

Vanport, however, had nice, compact housing units suitable for young families. What better way to revitalize Vanport and turn it into a thriving community of all classes then to attract young, upwardly mobile families headed by WWII veterans using their GI college benefits?

Thus, Oregon's third major state college center (along with the state university at Eugene and state college at Corvallis) was sited at Vanport (and later became Portland State University). In its first year Vanport Extension Center enrolled over 1,900 students in its college classes. By comparison, the University of Oregon had just under 2,500 students in 1945.

The plan to revitalize Vanport began to work. Life for many of the new Vanport families consisted of a quiet, but hectic life divided between working to support their families, college classes and raising the children who began the Baby Boom. War time residents, without round the clock war work shifts, saw life settling into a more normal family pattern.

Vanport had the further benefit of a racial integration and acceptance superior to that in Portland. Ed Washington describes the difference between life in Vanport and life in Portland:

Well life after the flood was really just a lot of things I just described. Moving around a lot until you could finally find a permanent place. I never really got settled into school again until 1950 when I went to Irvington. You’re on the move for two years and that’s very disrupting. You’re coming to grips with a new neighborhood -- Williams Avenue, which was a predominately Black area, that was between Interstate and MLK, and the Steel Bridge and Fremont. So you know you’re in with a concentration of people, mostly Black, that you didn’t have in Vanport. You had a lot of Black people in Vanport, but we didn’t have the concentration. At least it appeared to be scattered, and that was probably because there were so many other people. But most of the others that lived in that area were Black. Not everybody in that area was Black, but it meant that you had to go to a new school. You had to meet new friends, and it meant that you really left the place that you really grew up. A place that you were very comfortable with, a place that you could get around in, and now you had to be concerned about all the other things that come to [when you] live within the city.

On May 30, 1948, all that Vanport promised ended. Despite the planning, normalizing of work schedules, and influx of upwardly mobile young veterans and their families, the flaw of building on easily flooded land overturned it all.

Some first hand accounts of the flood are here, here and here.

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