Where We Live: 70 years since the Vanport Flood

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PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Memorial Day 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of a devastating flood that wiped out Oregon’s second-largest city. 

The ripples from the Vanport flood still shape this city.

Vanport stood where the Portland International Raceway is today. It was the nation’s largest public housing project, built in 1942 by industrialist Henry Kaiser to house workers at the Kaiser Shipyards on Swan Island during WWII.

At the height of the war, Vanport housed about 40,000 people.

The Kaiser hospital system started in Vanport and Vanport College became Portland State University. 

State Senator Jackie Winters has had a successful career in politics and in business, but her defining moment is still the Vanport Flood. On May 30, 1948, Winters was just 11 years old. 

“I want to say chaos, but it was even more than that,” Winters said. “You’re frightened, because suddenly you’re seeing this swirl of water.”

Historical photos of Vanport and the Vanport flood. (Courtesy of City of Portland archives) 

The dike holding back the Columbia River broke, wiping out the city and killing 15 people. Nearly 20,000 people escaped to higher ground, including Winters, her parents and 5 siblings.

“If you recall, there was only one way in and one way out,” Winters said.

Winters’ parents came to Oregon from Kansas.

“My dad worked in the shipyards, and my mom, for a period of time, worked in the shipyard, and that’s how we actually got to Vanport,” Winters said. 

Historical photos of Vanport and the Vanport flood. (Courtesy of City of Portland archives) 

The community was also a bold social experiment. The schools and public areas were open to all races.

“I mean, it was a community, and there was a sense of community, and I think even to this day, we talk about it, and talk about the lives of living in Vanport. “

After the flood, most African-Americans settled into the Albina neighborhood of North and Northeast Portland. The neighborhood is now gentrified and its vibrant culture diluted but Jackie Winters and other former Vanport residents have a bond that can’t be washed away. 

“The legacy of Vanport, I think, it’s a community that has continued to survive,” Winters said. 

Much of Vanport’s history is documented by the non-profit Vanport Mosaic.

Historical photos of Vanport and the Vanport flood. (Courtesy of City of Portland archives) 

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