"Salvage workers recovered the bodies of a boy and a girl at Vanport. That city of 18,700 people was smashed to kindling last Sunday in the greatest single disaster of the Pacific Northwest." - Chicago Tribune, June 5, 1948
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Vanport, the largest war time housing effort built in the United States. It was a mecca that drew people from 46 of the then, 48 states. Vanport's new residents increased the black population of Portland by 5 fold.
Edgar Kaiser built the shipyard and city for the wartime effort of building Liberty Ships. Kaiser was a welfare capitalist. In the 24 hour open city, workers had healthcare, childcare, housing, markets, libraries, a college, theater and made about $12 an hour by today's measurement. East Coast shipyards took 6 months to build a ship, while Vanport once finished one in 14 days.
For many young blacks who were born in the South, Vanport was a freeing experience. The first black teachers in Portland taught at the schools and the first black librarian was on staff at the housing library. Outside of Vanport, Portland ramped up its segregation and xenophobic tendencies. Oregon outlawed any free black person from living in the state until the 1920's. The state was a Mississippi of the West, drawing poor whites and KKK members because of its de jure racism.
Vanport was a microcosm of the United States with a mixed population of white, black, Native American and Japanese from the internment camps.
The city was built on a swamp with the Columbia River and lakes surrounding. Dykes and a railroad fill were put in place to hold rising waters back. In 1946 the river swelled, but the waters didn't break through. In 1948 they did and Vanport was washed away in one day, leaving thousands of primarily black residents displaced.
Today, not even in name is Vanport remembered on the site where its residents once thrived. A broken concrete slab with grass growing through the cracks is all that remains of the popular 750 seat movie theater.
May 30th marks the anniversary of the Vanport flood. A collaborative effort is being held over the weekend by the Vanport Mosaic Festival, a group of educators, artists, former residents who advocate for preserving the memory of the lost city.