The Vanport Tragedy

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Canoramic Bathroom Reader.

Today, Portland, Oregon is known as one of the most liberal cities in America. How did it get that way? Begrudgingly, when it had to welcome thousands of African-Americans displaced by a horrible flood.


Oregon became a state in 1859, stayed with the U.S. during the Civil War, and anti-slavery Abraham Lincoln carried the state in the 1860 and 1864 presidential elections. That belies deep institutional racism in early Oregon. The state’s first constitution expressly prohibited black people from even entering the state. The Supreme Court struck down those provisions in 1926, but blacks were still persona non grata.

That was due in no small part to the Oregon chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, one of the most active branches in the nation. In the 1920s, the KKK in Oregon counted 20,000 members. Among them was governor William M. Pierce, who openly acknowledged his involvement with the hate group, going so far as to appear on the front page of The Portland Oregonian with local Klan leaders.

By contrast: In 1940, only about 2,000 black people lived in Oregon, most of them in the state’s largest city, Portland… although they were restricted to the Albina neighborhood due to the “code of ethics” established by the city’s real estate. The only jobs available: railroad work or as domestics.


Accurately predicting that the U.S. would at some point join World War II, ship magnate Henry Kaiser built shipyards across the West Coast in the late 1930s. One of the biggest sat on the Columbia River at the northern point of Portland, Oregon. When Japanese pilots bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. formally declared war in 1941, Kaiser added two more boat factories in that location to meet the anticipated demand for warships.

Around 10,000 men and women came to Oregon to find work at Kaiser’s shipyards, a great economic boost in the post-Great Depression years. The problem: a lack of housing for workers and their families, particularly the 7,000 new African Americans who arrived in the area.


Kaiser needed to act fast to ensure his employees had someplace to live. His son Edgar Kaiser, newly in charge of his father’s Oregon plants, quickly purchased 650 acres of land near the factories north of Portland and signed a deal with the federal government to help fund what would become the largest public housing project in U.S. history at that point. The “Liberty ships” built in Kaiser Shipyards were known for their rapid construction— four days was their record— and the brand-new city to house the shipbuilders was built just as rapidly. Residents moved into their homes in December 1942, just 16 weeks after construction began. The ad hoc community was nicknamed Vanport— it was right between Vancouver, Washington, and Portland.

Within months, that collection of quickly built homes became a real community, a city even. Schools were constructed, as were shopping centers, nurseries, a fire station, a library, police stations, a hospital, and even a 750-seat movie theater. Like Portland— and many of the cities of the time— the residential areas of Vanport were segregated. But the schools, churches, and businesses were not. By 1945 Vanport was home to 42,000 people, making it the second-largest city in Oregon.


When the war ended in 1945, so naturally then did the need for tens of thousands of shipyard workers. The work left, and so did the people. By 1947, just two years after the end of World War II, Vanport’s population shrunk to 18,000 people. It was a ghost town. Portland mayor Earl Riley proposed that his city absorb what he called a “municipal monstrosity” bulldoze it, and build a new industrial district to provide manufacturing jobs.

While civic leaders debated what to do with the town, Mother Nature intervened. The winter of 1947– 48 left a massive snowpack on the nearby Cascade Mountains, which melted during the warm temperatures that accompanied a heavy May rainfall. As the Columbia River began to rise, local politicians tried to temper fears of the very real threat of a flood for citizens of Vanport and northern Portland. The Housing Authority of Portland released the following statement the morning of Memorial Day 1948:

But they didn’t have time. That afternoon, the Columbia River breached Vanport’s western dike and sent a 10 foot wall of water into the city. The hastily built wooden buildings were tossed aside like cardboard boxes by the raging water. In less than an hour, 16 people were killed in the destruction. The flood completely wiped out Vanport.


In the days following the flood, the 18,000 newly homeless former Vanport residents streamed into Portland for assistance. Because so many of the families who stayed in Vanport after the war were black it forced Portland to permanently confront integration of the city. While some residents remained hostile, many white families opened their homes to the helpless refugees.

In the ensuing decades, civil rights legislation and the liberalization of Oregon’s politics would contribute to Portland’s reputation as one of the most liberal-leaning cities in America. Another of Henry Kaiser’s businesses was Kaiser Permanente, which today offers health-care services to more than nine million people in eight states. In 2009 the company paid to erect a memorial plaque near where Vanport stood, which now encompasses the Portland neighborhood of Kenton. That plaque, commemorating the 1948 flood, is the only trace of Vanport. What was once shipyards and housing projects is now the Portland International Raceway and a golf course.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Canoramic Bathroom Reader. The latest annual edition of Uncle John’s wildly successful series features fascinating history, silly science, and obscure origins, plus fads, blunders, wordplay, quotes, and a few surprises

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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