Vanport was built in 110 days in 1942, and was meant to be a temporary solution to Portland’s housing shortage during World War II. The city was also home to the many workers who came to Portland to work in Henry Kaiser’s shipyards building ships for the war effort.
At its peak, with a population of 40,000, Vanport was Oregon’s second largest city, complete with schools, stores, and a movie theater. After the war was over, although some people left, many families who had come from all over the country to work, stayed on.
“Depending on who tells the story, the new town built to accommodate migrant workers was either an experiment in racial integration or a nasty, segregated ghetto.”
The city was built on the swampy land where Portland’s racetrack and Heron Lakes Golf Club stand today. The low-lying land was surrounded by dykes, designed to protect the area from the Columbia River.
The spring of 1948 was very warm, causing an early snow melt, filling Oregon’s rivers and streams to the bursting point. Vanport’s residents were told that the dykes were safe, to stay put, and that they would be told if they needed to evacuate. On Memorial Day, May 30, one of the dykes surrounding Vanport broke, flooding the city and wiping it out in less than an hour. It is not clear how many people were killed. After the flood, many Vanport residents were displaced and struggled to find housing, especially many of the city’s African American residents, who were not free to live in many Portland neighborhoods.