65 Years Ago Today: The Vanport Flood

65 years ago this weekend, Oregon’s 2nd largest city was erased from the map in hours.  If you’ve never heard of the Vanport Flood, read on…it only happened 5 miles from downtown Portland.

I love weather AND history, so I find this flood fascinating, especially since it’s results echo through Portland even in 2013.

During World War II (1940-45), huge numbers of workers were brought in to work in the shipyards here in Portland.  There was an urgent need for housing, so a city was quickly built and called VANPORT (Get it?  Vancouver+Portland?) on the flats north of Portland.  That’s the low area west of I-5 around Delta Park where PIR, Heron Lakes, and Delta Park West is now.  That city contained 40,000 at it’s peak, making it the 2nd largest city in the state!

After the war, lots of folks moved away, but there were still 13,000+ residents there by the Spring of 1948, three years after the war ended.  Even a college had opened in the city for the returning GI’s…the Vanport College.

The winter of 1947-48 brought massive snowfall to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest and Rockies, along with lots of rain.  At this time there were very few dams to hold back spring floods on the Columbia and Snake Rivers…although Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dam both were operational.  The Columbia River rose throughout May 1948 and by Memorial Day Weekend was approaching the 30′ level on the Vancouver gauge.  That’s within 4′ of the all-time high in 1894.  For comparison, that 1948 level is about 21′ higher than the river is on this Thursday afternoon!  The Portland Housing Authority had put out a notice the morning of the flood saying:

REMEMBER: DIKES ARE SAFE AT PRESENT. YOU WILL BE WARNED IF NECESSARY. YOU WILL HAVE TIME TO LEAVE. DON’T GET EXCITED.”

That didn’t happen.  On Memorial Day, May 30th, (used to be on that date instead of the last Monday of May) the railroad dike on the west side of the city (where the railroad is now) burst around 4:20pm.  A 10 foot wall of water went surging into the city.  By sunset the city was inundated and remained so for over a month.  A few factors helped keep the death toll quite low (just 15):  it was the holiday weekend with lots of people out of town and mild temps plus bright daylight kept confusion to a minimum too I suppose.  Here’s the view two weeks later from just about the same vantage point.  Note the triangular are of trees on the edge of the slough in both pictures: 

Interesting to note that the river kept rising, and peaked about the date this picture was taken…at exactly 31′ on the Vancouver gauge.  The flood was the 2nd highest on the Columbia River since record keeping began in the 1800s.

Here are the results:

1. About 1/2 of the residents were of African-American descent; largely settling into north and northeast Portland following the flood.  Lots of  good information about this online which is way out of the scope of a weather blog, but really interesting.

2. Vanport College was called “the college that wouldn’t die”, restarted in downtown Portland, and became Portland State University.

3. The town wasn’t rebuilt, but became a raceway, a park, golf course, and wetlands.

4. The Flood Control Act of 1950 spurred more dam building along the Columbia and it’s tributaries, due to the 1948 flood.

Chief Meteorologist Mark Nelsen

59 Responses to 65 Years Ago Today: The Vanport Flood

  1. My lived there my Dad worked at the ship yard welding on the ships My brother was born while they lived there they moved back to Sioux city Iowa before the flood . this was very interesting to read as I knew Vanport was no longer there but never knew why

  2. gidrons says:

    The Euro operational has brought back our old friend, the 4 Corner High.

  3. Kyle says:

    I learned about this in The Oregon Weather Book that gives detailed accounts of major weather events that impacted the state of Oregon! Anybody picked that book up?

    Sadly the book doesn’t go past the year 2000 and is in need of much TLC as we have had plenty of exciting weather events impact our state since the book was written.

  4. vernonia1 says:

    sad that they did not make it out of this one…

    3 veteran storm chasers killed by Oklahoma tornado
    http://apnews.excite.com/article/20130602/DA6LSSSO2.html

    • Oh wow that is horrible..

    • W7ENK says:

      http://www.weather.com/video/inside-tumbling-twc-vehicle-37089

      Reed Timmer set the precedent. Now, everyone else wants to recreate his “exclusive” experience, but they’re doing it with inadequately protected vehicles. Whether driven by personal or corporate jealousy, Reed’s actions are pushing others to do some really stupid things around these monstrous tornadoes, and three men have just lost their lives in the process.

      Tornadoes are like predators. Every other species on this planet runs and hides from predators, not chase them. Get too close, you will get bit if not completely eaten. Tim, Paul and Carl learned this lesson the hard way. This doesn’t lessen the tragedy of their deaths, but mistakes were made, and they were way too close to begin with.

    • Mcp says:

      Erick you have no idea what you are talking about. Tim was chasing tornadoes for over 25 years. His sole purpose was to gather scientific data and he was extremely well respected in the scientific community. The tornado that took his life took a very fast and unexpected turn. Please do some research before you post something like that.

  5. runrain says:

    It’s 2° warmer today than it was yesterday at this time. Hmmmmm

  6. runrain says:

    82° for the Grand Floral Parade? I’ll have to see it to believe it!

  7. Sifton says:

    Gotta give credit to ol’ Hill, he called it!! Also those high temps for next week seem to be dropping daily. Man, it figures……..

    • JJ97222 says:

      We had one nice afternoon and now we will pay. The cold wet weather will now focus on next weeks Rose parade. Switchochangeo it came out of no where!

    • pappoose in scappoose says:

      We’ve got our work cut out for us, getting the grass dead.
      It’s almost like starting over again, with the ground pretty moist.

      Fortunately, I’ve gotta change oil in a vehicle today…almost ran outta mole food! Hahaah!

  8. Dave in SW PDX (235') says:

    Light rain falling at my house this morning, wasn’t expecting that. Forecast bust?

  9. bobbii says:

    I was born in Vanport, and was 3 years old when it flooded. We lost everything (I have 3 older brothers). A year later my mother and I were on the front page of the Oregonian insert. I’d love to find a copy of that, I’ve looked for years and haven’t been able to find it. The picture was interesting, I’d like to see more. Thanks, Bobbi

  10. umpire says:

    Thanks, Mark. Love the intersection of history and weather! I finished my accounting degree at PSU, so there is some of the historyof Vanport at PSU if one looks hard enough.

  11. Dave Ebright says:

    I don’t have all the details, but part of the Vanport flood affected Vancouver with a lot of flooding on the west side if you were going west on Mill Plain. I worked on houses there and you could see evidence of the old flooding there when replacing windows and siding. One family had pictures of their house during the flood with water just above the gutters (which they probably didn’t have then) with just the roof and chimney showing. We could see the watermarks.on the walls

  12. Regina says:

    I’m a born and raised Oregonian (42 years) and have never heard of it. Thanks for the history lesson! 🙂

  13. chiefWright (Marquam) says:

    Flood control has improved largely to better hydrologic prediction and reservoir dams on the tributaries, not more dams on the Columbia mainstem. Most of the dams on the Columbia and Snake, including Bonneville, are “run-of-river” dams, which means they have limited storage to hold back high flows. In fact, where most river systems in the US have more than twice as much storage to runoff, the Columbia has less than half as much storage to runoff.
    So while additional dams have reduced the risk of major flooding in Portland, they certainly haven’t eliminated it.

  14. I’ve heard of it over the years but now I even know more thks.

  15. Shirley Lovegren says:

    You can see the horse racing track in the pictures. It’s still there…

  16. miss mars 86 says:

    Very interesting to learn about history! Especially from the state you live in. Love reading about Oregon and its history, or hearing the experiences from those who remember and lived through some…

  17. Bob says:

    I was 7 years old and my father rented a two engine plane in which our family of four flew over Vanport. First time in a plane. I still remember the site. We lived in a defense house on Oswego street in north St. Johns. My Father and Mother were both welders at terminal four.

  18. Jeannine simonsen says:

    My mother babysat for a family who lived there during the flood. She says that the whole family was killed and remembers many more stories of death than were reported. Have you heard that there might of been a coverup of the real death toll? She seems to think so.

  19. bgb41 says:

    5/30/2013 Oregon (All) Temperature Summary

    Warmest:
    High:73 at DW5789 Eagle Poi(1463 ft) & Medford Viaduct(1360 ft) & ILLINOIS VALLEY(1389 ft) & DW0069 Ferndale(840 ft)
    Low: 54 at AC7WN Hermiston(497 ft) & JUNIPR(359 ft) & CW1244 Pendleton(1145 ft)

    Coldest:
    High:35 at CW7477 Lostine(7002 ft) & MT. HOWARD(7910 ft) & HOWARD Mt Howard(8150 ft)
    Low: 23 at Mount Hood Meado (6601 ft )

    Largest Diurnal Change: 37 degrees
    MEDFORD PORT #2 (76/39 ) (1858 ft )
    ILLINOIS VALLEY (73/36) (1389 ft)
    DW9301 Klamath F (68/31) (4121 ft)
    Worden (64/27) (4080 ft)

    Heaviest Rainfall:
    0.36″ at Mount Hood Meado(5249ft)
    0.36″ at CW2664 Corbett(659ft)
    0.32″ at Grant County Reg(3697ft)

  20. Doug Moore says:

    I wanna know more about Maywood Park.

    • runrain says:

      All I know is Maywood Park is the reason I205 bends back and forth near there. The Maywood Park folks refused to budge!

  21. WebFootSTi says:

    There still is some of Vanport left at PIR. The front and back straights. The front straight/drag strip is Victory Blvd. It’s a plated city street. The PIR business office is located at the base of the tower. 1940 N. Victory Blvd.

  22. Wanda says:

    I grew up near the Portland International Airport, but wasn’t born until 1955..my neighbors spoke about this time… living on their roofs and upper levels of their homes, using row boats to get around and get food…

  23. Regina Lyon says:

    How come they didn’t rebuild and keep the town called Vanport?

  24. Ron Hudson says:

    I was 8 and lived in Vanport when this happened. My older brother and younger sister were in the vanport theater when the movie was stopped and all of the lights came on and it was announced that the dike had broken and everyone should go home. It was frightening! My family made it out of Vanport with minutes to spare. We got onto interstate ave at victory and went across the road to see the water where we had just been. It was so strange to see the buildings floating with people on top and cars with people in them being inundated in the rising water. We were taken to the bay area in california by relatives. I moved back to this area in 1992. Every memorial day since we have rembered that event.

  25. Maya says:

    Beautiful historic story shared here! I am very young, only in my twenties, and I grew up in Northwest Portland, went to Chapman, and we learned about this in school, I also learned again about this in middle school @ (former Fernwood). So if you are a TRUE native of NE/NW Portland, you should have learned about this in school.

  26. Donna Dovey says:

    Thanks for posting this info. I have lived south of Salem since 1984 and I have never heard of this. I love all stories about Oregon history. This fascinates me that it is not well known.

  27. Dina Moritz says:

    I have lived in the Woodburn area since I was born 43 years ago…..I have never heard of this flood…and I love history. Thanks Mark for sharing this…I’ll have to ask my mom to see if she remembers this

  28. runrain says:

    A little more history about that area: Does anyone remember that in 1964 voters voted down the Delta Dome, which was to be built in that area? We would had the Seahawks and the Mariners! I still have a picture postcard artists rendition of the dome.

  29. oldwxwatcher says:

    The flood affected parts of Portland, too, of course. My family used the Mt. Tabor line (streetcars, converted to buses sometime in 1948) to go downtown to shop. We couldn’t use that route for a few weeks because the water came up over the east approaches to the old Morrison Bridge. The flood also disrupted rail travel on the Southern Pacific (now Union Pacific) rail line in the same area.

  30. The PDX Weather Bureau Office was forced to move downtown to the Customs House…..After as few months a few of us moved back to the United Airlines hanger where we did the weather stuff until a new building was built for us and the FAA staff….Cliff Watkins

  31. There is a back story to the construction of the worker’s housing in Portland (Vanport) that belies the undercurrent of racism during that time. Portlanders in general were opposed to the project because it would bring in too many immigrants, people of color and poor unemployed people. But once the war started it was mandated by the federal govt. to provide housing for shipyard workers. And the rest, as they say, is history!

  32. W7ENK says:

    A tragedy on a scale similar to Katrina, and yet since it happened waaaaay out in Orygone, no one outside of the PNW knows about it. I guess that’s good, right?

    • Benjamin (West Salem) says:

      Many people even here in Oregon don’t know about it. I told my instructor about it and it was the first time he had heard about it. He’s lived here for 14 years.

    • Sifton says:

      Yeah that really surprises me, even long time locals in the region hadn’t known. Kinda trippy IMO…….

  33. BoringOregon says:

    1ST!!!

  34. Darral says:

    we lived there when the flood happened. I was too young to remember it but we have pictures I have seen of houses floating off their foundations and cows swimming to safety, cars half submerged, and boats saving residents off of their roofs as the houses floated away. Our family went to a friends farm and lived in a chicken coup for awhile until Dad got back on his feet after injuring his back trying to save our belongings.

  35. Dan Walker says:

    After all these years, I’m a little surprised they call the max station “Vanport/Delta Park”. There isn’t any resemblance to Vanport over there.

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