Wartime community vanished in Columbia flood 55 years ago today

Portland will pay tributetoday to what was onceOregon's second-largest city, a vibrant human experiment with a wartime purpose that ended when the Columbia River washed it into history.

Local dignitaries will join TriMet in dedicating a 4,000-foot concrete trestle near the northern end of the city's newest light-rail extension. It will be christened the Vanport Bridge, after Vanport City, a World War II housing project that was destroyed by a flood 55 years ago today.

The 10 a.m. ceremony will be attended by Rep. David Wu, D-Ore.; Metro President David Bragdon; city Commissioner Jim Francesconi; and survivors of Vanport.

'We're honoring a very special piece of history,' said Mary Fetsch, director of communications for TriMet. 'The city of Vanport brought men and women from over 40 states. It really helped create a diverse community.'

The 5.8-mile, $350 million Interstate MAX Yellow Line, being built largely with federal money, broke ground in November 2000. Initially projected to open in September 2004, it is now 80 percent complete and may open as early as next April, according to TriMet officials.

TriMet staged an open contest inviting the public to name the new light-rail bridge, which rises from the Kenton neighborhood in North Portland and lands near the entrance to Portland International Raceway.

'We got over 300 responses,' Fetsch said. 'The overwhelming choice was Vanport.'

Vanport City was home to as many as 80,000 people in its heydey. Most had come at the invitation of industrialist Henry Kaiser, whose shipyards in Portland and Vancouver, Wash., would turn out hundreds of vessels during World War II.

After Japan's attack on the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into the war, the nation needed ships, and it needed them fast. Kaiser recruited workers nationwide, bringing them to Portland on trains called Magic Carpet Specials. It is estimated that 125,000 people came; as many as 25,000 of them were black.

To house the workers, Kaiser purchased 650 acres near the Columbia Slough. With federal funding, he built the largest public housing project in the country. It contained nearly 10,000 individual housing units, schools, parks, three fire stations, a post office and a movie theater.

Kaiser's workers made a major contribution to the war effort, churning out more than 700 ships, many of them workmanlike supply and troop transport vessels called Liberty Ships. Built to standardized design for mass production, more than 2,700 of them were produced nationwide, some in as few as three days.

But Vanport City was more than company housing. It was the first significant integrated population center in Oregon, where black and white workers and families lived, played and worshiped together. And it was the birthplace of Portland's black community.

'Everything that was done in Vanport was integrated,' said Carmen Walker, 81, who lives in Northeast Portland. 'It was very interesting how many different places these people had come from, how we pulled together. The mixing was never a problem.'

Walker said her father, a prosperous Mississippi farmer and landowner, did not come to Portland out of necessity. 'He was excited about building ships,' she said.

She was living in Chicago, fresh out of college, when she learned that Vanport was in need of a recreation director. She made the move west in 1944.

A remarkable experiment

The new arrivals did not find utopia. The amenities in Vanport City, built in a short period, were far from perfect, and the surrounding community could be outright hostile. Shipyard unions and their members resisted the inclusion of black workers, attempting to deny them skilled jobs. Many area businesses also refused to serve people of color.

'The racial conventions that prevailed were going to have an impact,' said Darrell Millner, professor of black studies at Portland State University. 'These people were strangers. They had different values and different lifestyles, different patterns of behavior.'

Millner said there were 2,500 blacks in all of Oregon before World War II. The state openly practiced racial exclusion and was, in places, a hotbed for racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.

'You had to step forward,' Walker said. 'My mother always taught me that you don't have to feel inferior to anyone. I would not be part of a segregated experience. I planned activities for all of the people of Vanport.'

'In the context of its time, it was remarkable,' Millner said of Vanport City. 'It was the first time that kind of experiment had been tried.'

Though the majority of Vanport residents black and white left Oregon after the war, those who remained had a newfound power, not the least of which was economic.

'That new black population had economic resources,' Millner said. 'It changed the path of the black experience in the area.'

Black entrepreneurship rose. Jazz clubs that sprang up along North Williams Avenue attracted the likes of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, helping to put Portland on the country's increasingly diverse cultural map.

'You had a black population that was large enough to create what felt like a vibrant community,' Millner said.

Caught by the waters

By the spring of 1948, the population of Vanport had dwindled to between 18,000 and 20,000. The housing was never meant to be permanent, so the future of those who remained there was uncertain until the rain-swollen Columbia River and a failing earthen dike put the matter to rest.

'I was cooking dinner,' said Walker, by then married and pregnant with her first child. 'I think I had a pot roast in the pressure cooker. We picked up the food and got out.'

She said she and her husband drove away in their Model A Ford with little more than the clothes on their backs.

'They told us that they would let us know when we were in danger. They didn't,' she said. 'A lot of people were caught.'

The hastily constructed buildings of Vanport were no match for the rising waters. Fifteen people died, and most of the survivors lost everything. Vanport was gone.

But the war and the community it created near the terminus of the new light-rail line permanently reshaped the cultural landscape of the area, Millner said.

'Four years really did see a radical change in the experience of the black population of Oregon,' he said. 'It could never go back.

'There are people around today who participated in that,' Millner said. 'If there's one part of black history in Oregon that people know about, it's Vanport.'

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