By Jeffrey Stone ::
This week we look back on a tragic and controversial event in Oregon history: the 1948 flood that washed away Vanport, Oregon.
During World War II, the United States industrial sector was working overtime to keep up with military demand. Kaiser shipyards was in desperate need of employees, but a housing shortage in Portland forced many job-seeking migrants to sleep on the streets. The City of Portland had already rejected a proposal for federally funded public housing, over concerns that it would lower the city’s property values. To stop the federal government from building public housing, the city created the Housing Authority of Portland to maintain local control. Unsatisfied with the pace at which the Housing Authority was constructing homes, Henry J. Kaiser took it upon himself to purchase 650 acres of land, where Portland International Raceway and the Expo Center currently reside.
At its peak population during the mid-1940s, Vanport was the second largest city in Oregon and home to over 40,000 people. After the war ended and industrial production slowed, the population of Vanport quickly began to dwindle. At the time of the flood in 1948, Vanport was down to just 18,000 citizens, one-third of whom were unemployed. To their elite neighbors in Portland, Vanport had become synonymous with poverty and crime. Because many whites moved out after the war and many African Americans stayed in city, the negative and racist stereotypes about Vanport were solidified.
Vanport was built next to the Columbia River, fifteen feet below the river’s water level. A series of dikes were built for safety. On May 30, 1948, the Housing Authority of Portland and the Army Corps of engineers released this notice to Vanport residents:
Despite this assurance of safety, at 4:17 PM the dikes gave way. Fire fighter Oscar Bollinger wrote in a report to the town’s manager explaining what he saw:
The flood took less than 90 minutes to consume the entire city. Vanport resident Stephen Epler reported seeing houses floating around and crashing into each other, some at speeds of twenty miles an hour.
Flood victims felt that the Housing Authority had not done enough to protect them. Some even accused the Housing Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers of sabotaging the dikes or letting them break. The flood victims that believed these conspiracies pointed to two motivations: racism and hatred of the poor. Vanport’s population was 40% African American by the time the flood waters came rushing through. The rest of the population was either poor or unemployed.
After the flood, rumors began to fly about town that the Housing Authority, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Portland City Chamber of Commerce had conspired to hide the bodies of hundreds of flood victims. The claim was that authorities were concerned that reports of hundreds of deaths in Vanport would discourage visitors to the upcoming Rose Festival only two weeks away. The long existing racial tensions between African Americans and the Housing Authority added fuel to this already growing fire. Racist housing policies, poor treatment of minorities, and the overall mishandling of the flood led to violent protestors at the Rose Festival, and a multiracial protest at City Hall in less than thirty days after the flood.
After the water receded, the final death total was 15. Nearly all 2,000 people on the missing persons list were accounted for, and the conspiracy theories of concealed bodies quickly faded, but the emotional scars left behind were never forgotten by the victims of the Vanport flood. Neither should they be forgotten by us.
Want more? Check Out:
- Alison Barnwell, “Remembering the Vanport Campus” (Portland State University Vanguard 2011)
*Side Note: The college mentioned by Fireman Bollinger was the Vanport Extension Center. Once located in shopping complex number two in Vanport, the extension center moved downtown and renamed itself Portland State College. In 1969 it became Portland State University, as it is still known today.
- Gordon Barteau, “Vanport New and Different Type of City” (The Oregonian 1943)
- Stuart McElderry, “Vanport Conspiracy Rumors and Social Relations in Portland, 1940-1950” (Oregon Historical Quarterly 1998)
- Oregon Historical Society, “Disasters” vertical file, located in the Research Library
- Dale Skovgaard, “Oregon Voices: Memories of the 1948 Vanport Flood” (Oregon Historical Quarterly 2007)
- Ellen Stroud, “Troubled Waters in Ecotopia: Environmental Racism in Portland, Oregon” (Radical History Review 1999)
- Jake Thomas, “Vanport: Portland’s Katrina” (The Portland Observer 2010)
- Gordon Oliver, “Kaiser Shipyards,” The Oregon Encyclopedia
- The Oregonian / Oregon Live, “Vanport Flood: May 30, 1948, changed the city and thousands of lives forever” (The Oregonian, May 30, 2017)
- Vanport Mosaic: The Vanport Mosaic initiative aims to honor the legacy of the Vanport community and the 1948 flood.
Jeffrey Stone: Project Manager, Host,
Will Schneider: Voice of Oscar Bollinger
KBOO DJ: Voice of Stephen Epler
Mike Matta: Voice of HAP Announcement