The Vanport Flood: 68 Years Ago Today

68 years ago today, what was once 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.

( This post is a repeat from May 2011, just a few small updates)

I love weather AND history, so I find this flood fascinating, especially since it’s results echo through Portland even in 2011.

I’ll be brief, since it’s a long story.

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 (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 around 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 14′ higher than the river is right now!  I notice the Portland Housing Authority had put out a notice in the week before 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 1/3 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, especially considering current demographic changes in the area.

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

27 Responses to The Vanport Flood: 68 Years Ago Today

  1. Paul Z says:

    Kim is correct, the death toll was covered up. I grew up with the story of the Vanport flood from my grandfather who was in the Civil Air Patrol at that time and responded. He said as he flew assessing the damage, that the bodies of black men lined the river banks like logs: in the hundreds. Those images had a life long impact on him. I remember Dick Goble when he worked for one of the local news stations in the 80s did a feature story on the flood, and said the truth about the death toll. But I see from this blog of 13 reported deaths, Portland is still not facing its mistake nor the Army Corps of Engineers who assessed the dikes and determined them to be safe.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I was there, and in the first grade at Couch School in northwest Portland. I remember machinists working at Willamette Iron & Steel taking row boats from lower Thurman street to work. The huge river rats were a problem so milk that was normally delivered to homes in that area was instead distributed at Couch school for the children.

  3. Tyler Mode in Battle Ground says:

    Double Halo today! I’ve never seen a structure like this.

  4. Dizzyland says:

    Today would’ve been perfect weather wise if it were not for the yucked out skies that blotted out the sun. It started off very beautiful sunrise I enjoyed but now you can barely see the sun having a white out or dim out whatever you want to call it.

  5. JohnD says:

    Thanks Mark. I would also recommend checking out a great documentary “Vanport: Oregon’s Lost City”. It was co-produced by my daughter Sasha Davis while a student at UO. It has been shown on OPB a number of times and won a regional Emmy award from the Nationa Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2008. You can find it in a Google search.

  6. Anonymous says:

    My husband was 3 and his whole family survived

  7. runrain says:

    It would be interesting to hear from that San Antonio guy about the impact of all the recent rain and flooding in that area. Or maybe we only hear when the weather is better there than in Portland? 🙂

  8. Paul D says:

    What is it going to be like in August since August and then some is already here in June….

  9. Kim says:

    My grandma and dad were in the Vanport flood..the death toll was not accurate …was very much information squelched …they barely made it out …the only bus that came out …many kids in the movie theatre that day perished…my Gma had a sense and kept my dad home that day from the movies..

  10. Garron 1/3 of a mile from Hillsboro Airport says:

    That is always a great story for us in the PNW! I see that a hazardous outlook has been issued for us in the long term/next weekend, by the NWS office, due to heat for this upcoming weekend?

  11. W7ENK says:

    Always an interesting read.

    Thanks Mark! 🙂

  12. runrain says:

    Mid 90’s Sat and Sun here. Still better than the 113 they are expecting in Phoenix this weekend. Called my uncle in the Valley of the Sun on Memorial Day to say hello and thank him for his WWII service. He was a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter pilot in the war, flying 73 missions over France, Belgium and Germany. Just celebrated his 92nd birthday.

    • My alter ego says:

      Saw on the news a P-47 crashed in the Hudson river over the weekend. Your uncle deserves a round of applause for his service. Peace.

    • runrain says:

      My uncle says there are about 3 or 4 that are still airworthy and several more in air museums, including one up at the Boeing Flight Museum in Seattle. The Thunderbolt Pilots Association used to have reunions at these various museums. They stopped the reunions as the number of remaining veterans is rapidly dwindling. Anyway, I think they should just ground the remaining P-47’s and keep them on static display.

      Those mid-90’s for the weekend have grown to near 100. Interesting that the records for those days are only upper 80’s to low 90’s. I believe we’ve hit 100 before in May.

    • umpire says:

      Thanks, Runrain. Losing so many of the WW2 vets. My dad would have been 92 in July. Served in Europe, but like many, never talked about the war.

  13. oldwxwatcher says:

    I was only 4 years old when this happened but I remember one effect of the flood. My family and I lived on Portland’s east side near Glencoe Grade School. There were no shopping malls then so any real shopping required a trip downtown, for which we took the Mt. Tabor streetcar. The flood affected the Willamette River, of course, with water from the Columbia backing up into it. It rose almost to 4th Avenue on the east side and for a few weeks we couldn’t take the streetcar to go downtown because of water over the tracks.

  14. I just remembered that 1948 was also the year that the Fraser river flooded over as well.

  15. Are there any folks still around who have personal stories about being there, or helping with the rescue efforts? Seems like that would be more interesting than a repeat of the same article I have read before.

  16. Jason Hougak says:

    I love history, it’s too bad lives had to be lost but that happens in almost every historical event dealing with mankind. Was that a La Niña winter? Good historical post Mark.

  17. Paul D says:

    First!

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