Vanport City Flood, 1948

It was 64 years ago today that a railroad berm at the western end of Vanport City gave way under a heavy spring snow melt runoff allowing waters from Smith Lake and the Columbia River to inundate the area. This photo shows the aftermath of the devastation from roughly the same position as this earlier Vintage Portland entry.

(City of Portland Archives)

14 thoughts on “Vanport City Flood, 1948

  1. I remember had friends who lived there they survived. Also they brought in service men from California to help clean up. My late husband was one of them, he came in 1949 and was stationed at the Portland Air Force base

  2. I was only 4 years old when this happened. My family lived in a house on Mt. Tabor and what I most remember about this event is that we couldn’t go downtown for weeks because of the backup of the Columbia into the Willamette, which rose high enough to cover the railroad tracks on the east side and the approach to the old Morrison bridge.

  3. Vanport City was newly constructed in 1943, home to about 40,000 wartime workers in the Portland and Vancouver Kaiser Shipyards. Volumes have been written about Vanport and the flood which destroyed it on May 30, 1948. The history of Vanport is quite interesting and worth reading about, so take a minute or two and check it out…look it up……it’s quite fascinating! Here’s a little tid-bit:

    Vanport was especially vulnerable to flooding, since it was built on reclaimed lowlands along the Columbia River. Making matters worse, an unusually heavy snow pack had accumulated in the mountainous regions of the Columbia River basin during winter. This basin is a massive area encompassing seven U.S. states and British Columbia, Canada. Heavy rains and melt water swelled the many tributaries feeding the Columbia in the days prior to the flood, creating high water levels not seen since the 1800’s. The lowest point in Vanport was about 15 feet (4.6 m) below the water level in the river.

    A radio alert was issued the night before the flood, and some residents moved their belongings into attics and upper floors. Few imagined the possible extent to which the water levels would rise. Another contributing factor to the lack of voluntary evacuation was the fact that many residents relied solely on public transportation.

    On the morning of Memorial Day on Sunday, May 30, 1948, the Housing Authority of Portland issued the following statement:


    At about 4:17 p.m. the western (railroad) dike burst, sending a 10-foot (3.0 m) wall of water into the area of Vanport College. Because of the numerous sloughs and backwaters in the area, the progress of the flood was delayed about 30 minutes, giving residents more time to escape.
    An emergency siren began to sound shortly after the initial breach, and residents began to head up Denver Avenue to higher ground.
    At the time of the flood, the population of Vanport was down to about 18,500 people. It was also the second largest city in Oregon at the time. Because of the holiday, many residents were away from their homes for the day. These factors contributed to the low loss of life: there were only 15 deaths. Nonetheless, the city was a complete loss. The city was never rebuilt.

    I remember seeing the “remains” of Vanport for years…empty streets, cement foundations with driveways where houses once stood and a very gray, flat, lifeless look to the whole area, no plants, no trees, nothing…kinda scary and almost like a movie set that no one ever bothered to come back and clean up. Desolate would be the perfect adjective here.

  4. Many of the concrete foundation/pads would be recycled in place for use by exhibits during the Oregon Centennial in ’59. Odds are pretty good you could still find traces today.

    I remember the following day we all piled into the car and with at least half the other residents of Portand drove out to the Union Ave. fill for a gawk. A huge traffic jam of rubberneckers. I recall a woman standing near us was trying to coax a cat off of a floating mattress and fell in. The poor cat made a leap for her head and thence for the bank and as far as I know is still running. The lady was hauled out sopping wet and pretty well scratched up using a lot of colorful language to describe her companions for letting her fall in. My mother told dad she thought the woman was qualified to join the Teamsters with that mouth. Times change.

    At that time my dad was working out of the old Eastside terminal at the foot of the Hawthorne Bridge. As he owned a boat he was asked to drag it down there and they launched it from 4th and Madison. When they cleared everything off the dock and got all the equipment moved to higher ground they went fishing up and down 2nd and 3rd. One of the fellows caught a big steelhead and got his picture in the paper. The dike failed later that day.

    The construction of all those dams on the Columbia and Willamette systems put an end to those spring floods. Come to think of it, put a end to a lot of good fishing too. Trade offs.

    A very timely post, thank you.

  5. I was 17 months old when the dike burst. My 11-day old sister and I were staying with my grandparents at my parents’ house in Vanport City. My father was graduating from the University of Portland on that day and he and my mother were at the commencement ceremonies. Our grandparents swept us up and got to high ground just ahead of the water. My mother was from Hartford, Connecticut and that’s where we wound up after the flood. I have a souvenir booklet with photos showing the flood and its aftermath.

  6. I went on a tour of the site today; it only had two stops but I learned a few interesting things. The historians said city planners were secretly relieved Vanport was destroyed. Vanport was built in 9 months as temporary housing and pretty shoddy, at the time it was starting to develop into a ghetto. It was decided that a golf course in the old town site would be fairly harmless because what’s the worse that could happen, the club house would be flooded? The race track was approved because it was felt race cars should be able outrun a flood. A lot of African-Americans lived in Vanport but so did a lot of Japanese-Americans returning from internment camps and veterans returning from combat. The picture you see above is WEST Vanport which had the larger houses. There was also an East Vanport with smaller houses. You very rarely see pictures of East Vanport because the houses were removed before the flood and scattered around the Metro area. I should know, I live in one. I showed a picture of my house to a pair of Vanport survivers and they confirmed it is indeed one of the houses they remember.

  7. Valerie: The guy who talked to us the most on the tour I took was Ed Washington who is on the video starting at 5:21 that you gave the link to. Hard to believe he’s 75 years old. The woman at 8:57 also spoke to us a little.

  8. I notice the date on the photo is 6/15. It’s amazing that the water was still so high over two weeks later.

  9. I am trying to prove to Multnomah County that the home I own was a former Vanport home, moved onto my property approx. 1949.. Dave Brunker, I see you live in a Vanport home. Is there a way I can get more info from you or anyone else out there? I need to know- who were the sellers of these homes? Who moved these homes? Mine is a little 2 bedroom bungalow. any and all info is much appreciated.

  10. My Dad and Mom lived in Vanport City, Dad worked in the ship yards, I had an older brother, and sister, I was born in 1945. Mom said we went across the bridge to Portland to the hospital where I was born. Nov 1945 when I was born. I had asthma so bad that the Doctor told my parents to move further Inland like Wenatchee WA, so we moved to Wenatchee in 1946. My dad also died at 58 from the asbestos in the building of the ships. Back then it was like snow, they did not know it was a killer. Then 20 years later my mother also died of Cancer from the abestos, Wife’s got it from doing theirs husbands laundry, the asbestos was in their work clothes, so she breathed it also. Now I have cancer, am 68, When I was a brand new baby, dad would come home from work and hold me with his work clothes on.

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