Life in Vanport

New documentary features stores from survivors

Michael Leighton | 11/9/2016, 11:58 a.m.
A new OPB one-hour documentary tells the story of Vanport, a city with roots for Portland's African American population.
An Oregon Historical Society photo shows children refugees from Vanport after the devastating flood in 1948.

A new one-hour documentary tells the story of Vanport, which, in the early 1940s, was the second largest city in the state before a catastrophic flood destroyed the town located on the delta between north Portland and the Columbia River.

“Vanport” will air Monday, Nov. 14 at 9 p.m. as Oregon Public Broadcasting kicking off an 11th season of Oregon Experience with first-hand accounts and personal stories of the people who lived in Vanport and rarely-seen archival film and images.

Vanport City was created out of a national emergency and it was significant for housing a large migration of black residents into the Northwest. World War II had turned the Portland/Vancouver area into a major shipbuilding hub and many thousands of workers from across the country began arriving for jobs in the shipyards. The Northwest migration caused a major housing shortage in the Portland area.

By early 1942, nationally-known industrialist Henry J. Kaiser was operating three of the area’s largest shipyards. To help meet the demand for housing, Kaiser built the largest single federal wartime housing project in the country. Although located on a flood plain and surrounded by dikes and levees, Vanport was conveniently close to the shipyards. During its heyday, it was home to about 42,000 workers and their children.

The city was built quickly and never meant to be permanent. The crowded apartment buildings were prefabricated and lacked cement foundations. It was a noisy 24-hour city, but offered progressive services for blacks and whites, including grade schools that operated year round and 24-hour day care for preschool children.

As the war came to a close, the shipyards laid workers off. Many of the transplanted workers decided to stay in the Northwest. In 1948, about 18,500 people still lived in the city, and about one-third of the population was African American.

That spring, heavy snowfall in the mountains and sudden warm temperatures sent a torrent of water down the Columbia River. Vanporters were assured that the dikes would hold; however, on Memorial Day weekend, one of the dikes collapsed and Vanport City disappeared under water in less than two hours— its flimsy buildings splintered and floated like corks.

The new OPB documentary “Vanport” examines how the city was created and thrived. The story unfolds largely through very personal stories of former residents and rarely-seen archival film and images from a variety of sources. It includes first-hand accounts of what it was like to live there, to flee from fast rising waters, and the devastation after the flood.

The community is invited to attend a public screening event for “Vanport” at McMenamins Kennedy School in Portland on Thursday, Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. (doors open at 6:30 p.m.). The event is free and open to the public, and will include a Q&A with Producer Nadine Jelsing.