Tour remembers the city of Vanport
By Mindy Cooper/The Portland Observer
More than 30 residents joined historians, the Columbia Slough Watershed Council, and the Black United Fund for a memorial tour of the city of Vanport, where residents, including a large African-American community, were forced from their homes by flooding.
The group met last Wednesday, 64 years from the fateful day of May 30, 1948 when at 4:17 p.m. a railroad dike burst, causing floodwaters from the Columbia River to consume the growing community, the second largest city at the time of the disaster, which left at least 15 dead and thousands homeless.
A one hour tour of the flood site started from the Delta Park/Vanport Max light-rail station and park and ride in north Portland. The station is decorated with several historical installations about the flood, created by local artists.
Northeast Portland resident Dwain Taylor, 67, attended the tour because he wanted to learn more about both the history of Vanport and the Colombia River before the construction of dams.
“My aunt lived here during the shipyard days,” he said.
According to Susan Barthel, Colombia Slough coordinator and leader of the tour, the railroad embankment was serving as a levy, but weak spots catalyzed water to eventually seep through.
“Vanport was built in a hurry, in about nine months, for war workers’ housing,” she said.
Others who experienced the flood first-hand shared their thoughts on what it was like to watch their lives change almost instantly.
“It changed our lives forever. We lost everything we owned, except what my mother had in her suitcase,” said Ed Washington, who lived in Vanport from the time he seven to 11-years-old.
Washington, like many residents at the time, moved with his family to Vanport in 1944 from across the country after his father found work during the war time effort.
“People were living wherever they could,” he said, adding that the city of Vanport was a big change for his siblings and mother, who said she had never seen so many people.
“It was a 24 hour town,” he said. “As I look back on it, it was also a time when kids were breaking away, and beginning to change.”
According to the Oregon History Project, mothers and fathers worked, so children were often left unattended. However, black and white residents of the crowded community learned to live next to each other.
“Vanport was one of the first school districts in the area to integrate,” Washington said.
“I never expected to leave Vanport,” he said. “Your home is where you sleep at night until something comes along and changes it.”
Washington remembers on the day the flood came, his mother, along with the rest of the town, wanted to go and see the river. “All of a sudden the sirens went off,” he said.
Washington’s family ran back to their home, grabbed a suitcase, some images and some clothes, and then proceeded to what is now Denver Avenue to wait and see what would happen.
He said, his mother didn’t believe him at first when he told her he saw a huge wave of water, until the waves kept coming in. “Everyone had expected to go home at night,” he said. “But that was not to be.”
Made possible by the Columbia Slough Watershed Council and the Black United Fund, the anniversary event provided residents with an insight into the former city.
To learn more about the history of the city of Vanport and the Colombia River, visit columbiaslough.org .