The Vanport Flood: 74 years ago today

6pm Monday…

74 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.

I love weather AND history, so I find this flood fascinating, especially since it’s results echo through Portland even in 2022.

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 (a “portmanteau” of Vancouver and 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 22′ 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 as the earlier pic.  Note the triangular are of trees on the edge of the slough in both pictures: 

It’s 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.

The result?

1. About 1/3 of the residents were African-American; largely settling into north and northeast Portland following the flood.  My grandparents on one side of the family were raised in and lived in that area from the 1910s to 1950s. I remember them talking about the changes after WWII. You can find lots of  good information about this online which is way beyond the scope of a weather blog. Interesting, especially considering demographic changes in the area (once again) the past 30 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, a golf course, and wetlands.

4. The Flood Control Act of 1950 spurred a massive program of dam building along the Columbia and its tributaries — due to the 1948 flood.

Chief Meteorologist Mark Nelsen

52 Responses to The Vanport Flood: 74 years ago today

  1. Weatherdan says:

    Please lay off on Tim. You don’t have to agree with what he says. But lets not degrade this blog to what is was for a while. Disagreeing with someones viewpoint is one thing, sarcasm is another. I too have been guilty of it in the past but it is not helpful.

  2. Joshua Lake Oswego says:

    Tim’s not going to like the 12z GFS. Maybe two days in the low 80s late next week and then below normal by the end of next weekend. Throw some rain in the mix too. Unsurprisingly, the operational has really bowed to the ensembles. In fact, the operational is now off of its rockers with cool troughing late next weekend.

    • tim says:

      That very strong hot ridge in the SW will push the jet stream to the north of us next week the models haven’t picked up on it yet except weatherwx.com, just give it time it will happen.

      • tim says:

        12z gfs is showing another heatwave on the 17th for California with highs in the 80s for us June is looking good this year.

      • Zach says:

        The 15z uganda model says 142F on the 16th. Tim should be excited about that.

  3. Opie says:

    WeatherWX is forecasting a high of 54 on June 13th. Let’s hope it’s not as accurate as Tim says it is. 😏

  4. West Linn 200 says:

    Just had a brief but very heavy downpour come through here not too long ago, that was intense.

  5. Joshua Lake Oswego says:

    Looks like Portland hit 81 today. Was hoping we could break the record for the latest ever. Oh well. Still no heat in sight unless you count the 18z GFS operational.

    • West Linn 200 says:

      I was hoping the same.

      GFS 6z had a 90 degree day in there too. I don’t buy it yet, especially with that atmospheric river approaching around the same time.

      • tim says:

        So it’s ok if you guys mention heat in the models but I do I’m wrong, hypocrites.

        • Jimmy Johns says:

          Because all you do is bring up what ever model you can scrounge up that is reading warmer temps and you take that as gospel and spam the hell out of the board with it.

        • West Linn 200 says:

  6. tim says:

    Today’s drought monitor update is still bad for Eastern Wa and even worse in Oregon and the rest of the west we still need the rain but it’s pointless now because it’s June and no amount will erase the drought this summer it’s up to the next rainy season to do that.

  7. Weatherdan says:

    There is a reason that folks around here joke that Summer starts on July 5th. June can be quite erratic. Cool and wet one day, then warm and sunny the next. I have stated before that I believe that this will be a Summer that slowly warms up. But will finish out above normal. So just be patient. 80 yesterday. NWS forecasts 81 today. Some forecaster who I will not name has forecasted on the Noon news that Salem will have received 1.72 inches by Monday. Only if we were to have a severe TRW will that happen. Otherwise I expect about .67. When you rely too much on the models and not on the visuals you can often get wildly inaccurate forecasts. Sadly this is happening far too often anymore. Peace.

    • Roland Derksen says:

      I tend to agree with you about the coming summer. It will get warmer and drier, for sure- the question is “when”? Looking back on my records of past summers, I can look at examples like 2011 (one of the more recent below average summers). In the end , it wasn’t all that bad, but it was slow to get going. I actually had my highest temperature in September!

  8. ACK says:

    Thanks for this Mark, interesting stuff. I was born here in ’72, long after this event, but have lived in North Portland nearly my entire life, so Vanport has been “in the ether” so to speak. At any rate, when I was first house hunting in Portland in the mid 90’s, agents would always point out if the house (built soon after the flood) had some of the (apparently high quality) reclaimed wood from Vanport. So in essence, Vanport bones are still “alive” in many houses in Portland.

  9. tim says:

    Weatherwx.com 14 day outlook is showing the warmup around the 10th we’re as weather.com has yet to latch on I’m going with weatherwx.com it appears to be more accurate.

    • tim says:

      Weatherwx.com is showing 93 for Portland on the 11th, I discovered this app a week ago and it’s been really accurate.

    • Roland Derksen says:

      it’ll probably take 7 days later to get to my area! 🙂

    • Anonymous says:

      I’m looking forward to the warm-up of 2023. Maybe you can start claiming that since you’ve been completely wrong about everything you’ve posted about for the last 3 months.

      • tim says:

        No I haven’t the models just keep backing off at the last minute this year for whatever reason but now there showing 80s and 90s around the 10th for several days now so I’m very confident this is going to happen but nothing is written in stone either.

        • Anonymous says:

          just admit it uve been saying it all year, u were wrong. altho i think it mighth happen this time

        • Oasis says:

          : warm, hot, heat….oh God I’m in love with these words, some may say obsessed with these words give me more please!!

    • Opie says:

      The app has some kinks to work out. For example, click on the 7 day forecast and you’ll see Portland with a high of 65 and a low of 59 for Saturday, June 4

      Click on the 14 day forecast and you’ll see 56 and 52 for the same day.

  10. West Linn 200 says:

    Max temp at PDX was 79 today. Euro’s cold bias is definitely true (especially around winter time) I think. KPTV slightly overestimated the heat again, but I suspected as much last week. It was fun seeing the forecast change over the last 5 days at the various stations. I’ll have to do this again whenever our first true heatwave is set to arrive.

    This was the forecast last Friday.

    Euro ensemble mean: 74
    KPTV: 83
    KGW: 78
    KOIN: 79
    KATU: 81
    Weather.com: 81
    Wunderground: 81

    • tim says:

      You should add weatherwx.com to your list.

    • Tanis Leach says:

      Euro as a rule of thumb, adding 5 degrees to the ensamble mean is a good starting point in the summer and 0 in the winter (inversions).

  11. Joshua Lake Oswego says:

    Days start getting shorter in 20 days.

  12. tim says:

    The cpc hazard outlook has a excessive heat for California and much of the south next week at what point do we get included, remember last year it started in the south then moved north over us so what goes around comes around eventually.

    • tim says:

      Today gfs gem cfs and euro ensembles are showing a significant warmup around the 10th there’s also a lot of talk on Twitter about as well and yet Cliff just posted new blog today about June to be cooler then normal poor Cliff he’s lost his touch.

      • Opie says:

        Not just Cliff – latest CPC forecast for June gives Portland and areas north a slightly better than equal chance of being cooler than the 1991-2020 normal Equal chances south of Portland.

      • Joshua Lake Oswego says:

        Your massive heatwave looks like 2-3 days of low to mid-80s and then back to near normal (or way colder than normal if you believe the GFS operational or Euro control).

        • tim says:

          I said a significant warmup not massive heatwave, at least your on board with 80s maybe in a few days models will show 90s as we get closer. That heatdome in the south could move further north,we’ll see

  13. JohnD says:

    Thanks Mark.
    While at UO a number of years ago, my daughter co-produced an award winning documentary “Vanport: Oregon’s Lost City”.
    You can Google it. Runs about 15 min.
    There are several docs out there.
    This one is the best!

  14. tim says:

    It was 71 today I took the bus downtown and so many people were complaining about the heat why’ll the AC was blasting on the bus,geez who would ever thought 71 was hot, it felt nice to me.

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  16. Susan out east says:

    Thank you for this wonderful recounting of an important piece of Oregon history! I came to live in PDX in 1974, and though there were scattered references to Vanport Flood (especially in 1996’s flood scare), I never really knew much about it. Weather is exciting sometimes, even in Portland.

  17. Roland Derksen says:

    I’m not convinced yet there will be a heat wave in mid-June, but you never know…. When I look back at last year’s June- the first 2 weeks were very ordinary. In fact, i was having slightly more rain for the first half of June than all of May 2021. Then it all changed. I’ve seen these big turnarounds before- nothing really new with that.

  18. West Linn 200 says:

    KPTV very bullish on hitting at/near 80 degrees today, Wednesday, and Thursday. Euro ensemble doesn’t want to go beyond 73, but I think Tim is slightly right, it has a cold bias. Does KPTV have a warm bias? We shall see. Last Wednesday’s predicted 80 degree temps never materialized…

  19. tim says:

    Go on some local wx twitter today and there is talk about a heatwave coming around mid June so I’m not the only one even weatherdan mention it on the previous blog.

    • Joshua Lake Oswego says:

      I’m still not seeing the ensembles support anything close to a heatwave in the forecastable timeframe.

  20. Lynn says:

    Excellent history! Thank you for sharing!
    On a side what’s the summer forecast? Cool??

  21. Gene says:

    Thanks for sharing this story with us again this year, Mark. Every time I play Heron Lakes Golf Course, I read the Vanport commemorative plaques that are located in a few places on the course. As I walk the golf course, I always marvel at how, almost 75 years ago, a thriving city was located on this spot that is now a collection of greens, fairways, sand traps and ponds. I see a few of the larger trees bordering the property, and wonder if any of them were around at the time of the flood. A few of the holes are right next to the railroad where the dike broke, and it is an eerie feeling seeing that location all these years later.

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