Sunday, September 27, 2020
Sept. 27, 2020

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The city that submerged

New book explores the tragedy of Vanport

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
6 Photos
The front page of The Columbian on May 31, 1948.
The front page of The Columbian on May 31, 1948. (Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Zita Podany grew up in Portland but simply didn’t believe what seemed like tall tales about a vanished city called Vanport. Her friends’ parents talked about living in and then fleeing the place. But Podany used to look down at the marshy no-man’s-land below the Interstate 5 Bridge and dismiss those stories. “There’s no way people could live there,” she thought.

Of course, people did live in Vanport: 40,000 of them were squeezed into 650 acres of shoddy construction that went up in a single year, between August 1942 and August 1943. That happened after industrialist Henry J. Kaiser grew frustrated with the way the city of Portland and its real estate professionals resisted finding or building housing for shipyard workers pouring into the area.

“They really didn’t want the face of Portland changing,” Podany said. Many of those new arrivals were not white. Many of them were poor, uneducated people from the Midwest and South. Professional Portland was not happy to have them, and Kaiser “lost patience” with that resistance, Podany writes in a new volume of the “Images of America” book series about the city that submerged.

Podany will visit Vintage Books at 2 p.m. Saturday to read from her book. Podany, who teaches at Portland Community College, is not a trained historian, but she said she is a dedicated student of history who has conducted many interviews with local people who experienced key historical moments — such as Holocaust survivors and Japanese Americans interred during World War II.

She wanted to do the same with Vanport’s original shipyard workers, she said; oral history interviews aimed at exploring minority communities and neighborhoods in Portland are all the rage these days, and her project fit that trend perfectly.

If You Go

  • What: Author Zita Podany reads from her new book “Vanport: Images of America”
  • When: 2 p.m. Saturday
  • Where: Vintage Books, 6613 E. Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver
  • On the web:

But finding living sources wasn’t easy, Podany said. In the end, she figured a book with more photographs than text — which is what the “Images of America” series does — might be the best way to tell the tale.

“There’s a resurgence of interest in Vanport,” she said. “This is a history that should be told.”

More than a flood

“Vanport was more than just a flood,” Podany said. “It was an unincorporated city of about 40,000 residents in very cramped quarters.”

Vanport was named for Vancouver and Portland, the two cities it was sandwiched between. It was built on 650 acres of floodplain and was always intended as a temporary housing project. “Vanport was never designed to be a permanent housing solution, and it was constructed with that in mind,” Podany writes.

At first, the instant city’s image was “miraculous” for its many amenities: “It had commercial/shopping centers, a movie theater, schools, day care centers, fire and police services, a hospital/clinic, a cafeteria, recreation centers, parklike areas, and utility buildings with laundry facilities,” Podany writes. “Apartments, though very small, came fully furnished. … A lot of thought and planning went into making life comfortable for working parents, especially working mothers.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Podany’s 127-page book is full of fascinating pictures of normal, comfortable, modern life in Vanport: smiling housewives cooking with “rangettes,” schoolchildren lining up for nutritious meals in the cafeteria and playing “Ring Around the Rosie” outside; groups of guys waiting for the bus to work.

It didn’t last. “When the war ended, funds dried up,” Podany writes. By 1948, the initial shoddy construction plus lack of maintenance had taken a serious toll. “It was no longer a model of ingenuity and innovation but rather looked upon as a blight, a remnant of an experiment that was past its prime,” Podany writes. Underlying all this, of course, was the fact that the people of Vanport were never really wanted here.

In May 1948, widespread flooding along the entire length of the Columbia River prompted local officials to start talking about evacuating thousands of people from Vanport. But only a fraction of them could be accommodated; even as talks were underway between the Housing Authority of Portland and the Red Cross, notices were slipped under Vanport residents’ doors assuring them that the dikes were fine and there was no reason to worry.

“Some residents never saw that notice. Those who did were reassured, and residents went about their Sunday business,” Podany writes. Others got busy sandbagging dikes. But it was all for naught: At exactly 4 p.m. on May 30, 1948, a railroad berm collapsed, and water started rushing into Vanport.

“Within an hour, apartment units were torn from their foundations and spun around, crashing into other buildings with great force. By midnight, a twisted mess of splintered wood and floating rooftops was all that remained. Vanport was gone,” Podany writes.

The official death count was 15 people — but to this day, many believe that the real count must have been much higher.


Vancouver played a key role in this story, Podany said, because many Vanport refugees fled north to McLoughlin Heights — a similar worker city built by the fledgling Vancouver Housing Authority. McLoughlin Heights “was the second largest wartime housing project” after Vanport, she said.

Others were relocated to Guild’s Lake, a spot in what’s now industrial Northwest Portland; Podany’s book includes some fascinating photographs of Guild’s Lake residents heading to Salem in a caravan to protest miserable housing conditions — carrying signs that read “We want permanent homes, not kennels on wheels!” and “Vanport dead cry out for justice!”

Today’s Delta Park is where Vanport used to be. Podany said that there’s a grass-roots effort underway to rename it Vanport Park.

Vanport Park, she writes, would “commemorate the temporary residents who made a permanent impact on Portland and Vancouver.”