The Vanport Flood: On This Date in 1948


71 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 2017 with 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 2017.

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.

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 demographic changes in the area the past 20 years.

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

24 Responses to The Vanport Flood: On This Date in 1948

  1. Elliott Martin says:

    A couple of years ago while out in the boonies out back of the Wallowas i ran into a really friendly old guy who must have been in his 80s. We got to talking and when i said i was from Portland he said “I’ve been to Portland. I was there when the Vanport floods happened. They said not many people died but i saw bodies stacked like cord-wood!” Something about the way he said that told me it was a shocking sight he still remembered clearly.

  2. Joshua Lake Oswego says:

    So… anybody notice the 101 degree high 9 days out on the GFS? The ECMWF (always a cool bias) is forecasting 94. Enjoy the brief period of below normal temps this week because it sure as heck ain’t gonna last.

    • Ken in Wood Village says:

      I noticed it and said something on the Facebook PDX weather. I just looked at the 18Z GFS, it has tone down the temp a little. I think it’s so way out there that it probably won’t happen. It probably will be just very warm. We’ll see!!

    • Evan -- Cedar Mill says:

      My guess is we’ll have a couple days in the low 90s.

    • Tanis Leach says:

      Max on Euro ensamblesfor that day is 98 (if my math is right, now 8 days out).

    • PAUL D says:

      NO!!!!!!!!!!! Please, no 90’s in June!!!

  3. Kyle says:

    Also the subtropical four corners high is weak to non existent where before it was on steroids. This summer will be very interesting having it not play much of a role.

  4. Kyle says:

    I’d worry more about the microscopic plastic in our Central Pacific. It is bigger then the west coast now. 6 years ago it was reported the size of Texas just all stuck there and that would screw up the ocean currents. Nobody is following up on it but I am willing to bet my life that the Humbolt current (if it’s still there) is severely messed up.

    There has been a lot of unusual fish reports on the west coast last few years (blamed on global warming of course).

    A year or two ago a plan was initialized to start scopping a lot of the trash up using giant ships to patrol. Last year a few were deployed and more are suppose to be online by the end of this year with even more next.

    That may be why we are having such a weird jet stream pattern flailing about because now some of the garbage is being destroyed causing things to move again but wildly.

    Things will have to slowly readjust itself.

    Plus there’s the Grand Minimum we are entering in too with full effects not till past 2020. We are in the ‘easy’ mode of it right now.

  5. runrain says:

    Looks like rain will show up just in time for the Rose Festival Parade – as usual!

  6. Kyle says:

    It’s always bothered me what causes record low minimums in May and June to freezing? Salem’s May record is somehow a staggering 24 degrees. That’s eight degrees of frost! And that isn’t ground temp either.

    I wonder what kind of airmass would do it? It’s gotta be something special? Even June has a record low reading of 32F. Are those readings suspect? Something doesn’t seem right as that would mean unofficial thermomenters might have read a bit lower.

    • Roland Derksen says:

      When (how many years ago) did those minimums take place?

      • W7ENK says:

        Salem, OR

        1 May, 1954 — 25°F

        3 June, 1976 & 6 June, 1899 — 32°F

        Click to access pg5.pdf

        • Kyle says:

          Was it a late (very late) season Artic cold front?

        • Kyle says:

          You can also use the NWS Now Data to get more details of those months. Salem’s records go back to the late 1800s. Corvallis AG Station has weird cold readings too.

      • Roland Derksen says:

        Kyle- just a brief response to your question; It’s unlikely it was an arctic front on either case given the late spring/early summer dates. Probably just an unusually cool airmass (an upper low situation0 at those times. I wasn’t around in 1954, but I recall my dad saying that was an unusually cool spring. Early June 1976 I recorded a low of 40F , which isn’t close to Salem’s of course, but we lived closer to the ocean here, so a sheltered place somewhere further inland in the PNW possibly could have had a frosty, freezing minimum then.

  7. JohnD says:

    Great stuff. Thanks Mark. Also can’t resist saying that my daughter–while still at UO a number of years ago–co-produced a documentary entitled: “Vsnport: Oregon’s Lost City”. It even won the regional National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences best documentary award back in 2008 and was well received–including on OPB.
    There have been other excellent renditions before and since for sure. All “Google-able”.

  8. W7ENK says:

    Here we go again…

    Yesterday redux. Marching Westward.

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