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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Vanport houses floated like life rafts in catastrophic flood.

The shoddily built Portland suburb existed for six years. In that time, it spawned Portland State University and helped bring ethnic diversity to the state. Few people realize how important the place really was.

Buildings float during Vanport flood in 1948.
Bystanders watch as apartment buildings float in the floodwaters at
Vanport during the 1948 flood. (Gerald R. Williams collection, OSU
Archives)

One sunny, beautiful day in May, 63 years ago, a wall of water more than a dozen feet tall roared through a broken dike and filled up the community of Vanport, Oregon — pop. 18,500 — with 15 to 20 feet of river water.

When the floodwaters had receded and authorities were able to fully assess the damage, they found that just 25 people had died. Put another way, a Vanport resident’s chance of dying in the flood was 0.135 percent: Fewer than one in 700.

This silent movie-camera footage was made by a Multnomah County
Sheriff's Office deputy during the flood. (Multnomah County Archives)

That’s still a lottery none of us would ever want to play. But it pales by comparison to the death toll from similar floods — especially the one that wiped out the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. What saved Vanport from a similar fate?

There was a lot of luck involved, for sure. Many people were gone for the weekend, and it didn’t happen at night. But the one most people don’t know about is the most unlikely-sounding of them all:

Shoddy construction.

It’s a cinch that if the apartment buildings at Vanport had not been slapped together in great haste during wartime, the death toll would have been higher — possibly much higher.

Here’s the story:

Built in a hurry to solve a wartime problem

Postcard showing floating  buildings in Vanport flood 1948.
The flooding of Vanport was deemed enough of a tourist attraction that
this postcard was actually made and sold after the event — something
that would be considered in impossibly bad taste today.

Vanport was cranked out in a wink by crews hired by Henry J. Kaiser, who desperately needed housing for workers at his shipyards — which, at the time, were dropping 441-foot Liberty ships into the water at a rate of more than two a week (here's an Offbeat Oregon article about that). It was planned and built with surprising thoughtfulness, considering the circumstances — its newly minted school district was in many ways the envy of the state, and Kaiser successfully fought the City of Portland’s plan to not include a fire station there.

But few of its residents seemed to like it. The buildings were so cheaply built, they didn’t even have concrete foundations, and sound passed through the thin walls with ease. The development was surrounded on all sides by 20-foot-tall dikes built to hold back the Columbia River during spring floods, so there were no sunsets in Vanport — one never got a look at the horizon. And the walls held noise in like a big bowl.

At its wartime peak, Vanport was home to about 40,000 people. After the war, the numbers dropped and, after some fluctuation, stabilized at 18,500. With the end of hostilities, the town became a source of low-income housing for the Portland area — and the community changed in several interesting ways.

Portland's incubator for ethnic diversity

First, nobody in Vanport was a V.I.P. — there was no “snob hill.” Every Vanport resident paid $7 a week for a studio apartment or $11.55 for a 3-bedroom unit. No one owned his or her own place. Almost everyone had kids, and the school district tied them tightly together as a community.

And it was in this egalitarian incubator that real ethnic diversity really started coming to the state of Oregon — the only state in the union that was originally admitted with a no-blacks-allowed exclusion law. Many of the workers who came to Portland to work in the shipyards were black. When the war ended, the other workers mostly wanted to go home, but thousands of black workers never wanted to see Birmingham or Atlanta or the Mississippi Delta again. In Vanport they’d tasted a life where white people, while still not exactly welcoming, for the most part at least didn’t openly abuse and persecute them.

So of the 18,500 people living in Vanport, more than 35 percent were black. This became particularly important when the flood sent those people out into the Portland community and gave non-black residents a moral mandate to help them. Of course, not all white Portlanders respected that moral mandate, but many did. White residents brought black families into their homes while the Red Cross sought permanent places for them. For most people involved, this was the first time they’d ever mixed with members of the other “race.”

That’s not to say that all was sweetness and light on the race-relations front. But under the circumstances, black families probably couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the community.

The birth of Portland State University

Vanport College building from before the flood; Vanport College is now Portland State University.
Vanport College started out as an extension service of Oregon State University. In
time, it became the largest university in the state; today, we know it as Portland
State University. This is what it looked like when it was still situated in Vanport,
before the flood. (Photo: Portland State University)

The status of Vanport residents as renters of modest means meant few were motivated or had time to make their town a showplace, nor did the shoddy construction inspire much pride in residence. But something else happened after the war that saved the town from becoming a slum: A state-college extension campus was set up there to serve returning veterans.

Thus was born Portland State University — and thus did Vanport start acquiring the tone of a college town. (If you’ve ever wondered why PSU’s newspaper is called the Vanguard, now you know.)

But it all ended just after 4 p.m. on May 31, 1948, when a massive railroad fill gave way and let the river in.

From city to lake in 20 minutes

Buildings floating in an aerial view of the Vanport flood.
An aerial view of the flooding at Vanport. (Gerald R. Williams
Collection, OSU Archives)

It took about 20 minutes for the river to get from the breached wall, through the swamp and slough and into town — this was one important reason for the high survival rate. Still,  when it got there, most residents were still in their cars trying to get out; the town had only one exit. In a matter of minutes the place was under 15 feet of water, and … and the houses were all floating.

That’s right: The lack of concrete foundations turned every single one of those apartment buildings into a life raft bobbing on the surface. They floated nicely, more or less upright, with the water level roughly just below the level of the upstairs windows.

Rumors fly: "Clogged with bodies! Government cover-up!"


Today the area once known as Vanport is home to Portland Meadows (the old dog
racing track) and Portland International Raceway. [View larger map]

The surprisingly low number of casualties, along with the weeks-long wait for the river levels to go down so that the city could be thoroughly searched, helped inspire some of the dramatic rumors about the flood: that the government was secretly covering up the deaths of hundreds by loading them on ships, that the bottom-floor apartments were “clogged with bodies,” that a school bus had been seen with limbs and heads of dead children trying to escape — stuff like that. The rumors got just enough traction to be annoying; most locals knew better, especially the Vanport residents themselves.

Today what used to be Vanport is the home of Portland International Raceway and the old racing track at Portland Meadows. Vanport College, now PSU, is now the biggest college in the state. And Portland has become a modern, cosmopolitan metropolis that’s unusually comfortable with its multi-ethnic population. In large part, the city has Vanport to thank.

Vanport only existed for six years before it was swept away. But few people realize how important the place actually was.

(Sources: Maben, Manly. Vanport. Portland: OHS Press, 1987; Holbrook, Stewart. The Far Corner. Sausalito, Calif.: Comstock, 1986/1952)