Remembering the Columbia River Flood that completely destroyed Vanport, Oregon

·2 min read
Remembering the Columbia River Flood that completely destroyed Vanport, Oregon
Remembering the Columbia River Flood that completely destroyed Vanport, Oregon

This Day In Weather History is a daily podcast by Chris Mei from The Weather Network, featuring stories about people, communities and events and how weather impacted them.


Vanport was a city in Oregon that was built in 110 days in 1942. Vanport, which was the state's second-largest city, was mostly made up of wartime public housing. It was located between what is now Portland city boundary and the Columbia River.

The city was a cursory solution to Portland’s wartime housing shortage. It was home to around 40,000 people; approximately 40 per cent were African-American (race is a major aspect of Vanport's history). It was also the largest public housing project in the United States.

Vanport street scene (1)
Vanport street scene (1)

"Vanport in 1943, five years before the flood." Courtesy of Wikipedia

After the Second World War, more than half of the residents moved away from the area, but many veterans also returned. To attract more veterans, the Housing Authority of Portland (HAP) established a college that was named the Vanport Extension Center (now Portland State University).

On Sunday, May 30, 1948, Vanport flooded. It was vulnerable to flooding because it was constructed on reclaimed lowlands along the Columbia River.

Vanport flood overturned cars (2)
Vanport flood overturned cars (2)

"Overturned cars in the aftermath of the Vanport flood in 1948." Courtesy of Wikipedia

The 1948 winter was particularly snowy. The area also received above normal temperatures. Leading up to the flooding the area also received two major rainstorms.

A few days before the flooding, the excessive rain and the melting snow caused several tributaries leading to the Columbia reaching record-high levels. Vanport's lowest point was around 15 feet below the river's water level.

The day before the event, residents received a radio alert to warn about possible flooding. Some people moved their belongings to higher floors.

On the day of the flooding, which happened to be Memorial Day, HAP officially issued the following statement: "Remember: Dikes are safe at present. You will be warned if necessary. You will have time to leave. Don't get excited."

At around 4:17 p.m., the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway berm burst. A three-metre wall of water rushed into the Vanport College area. The Vanport area was surrounded by sloughs and backwaters so the flooding was delayed; this gave residents around a 30-minute warning.

Aerial view of vanport flooded (3)
Aerial view of vanport flooded (3)

"Aerial view of the Vanport flood, looking west from North Denver Avenue on June 15, 1948." Courtesy of Wikipedia

An emergency siren sounded and residents headed to higher ground.

Because it was Memorial Day, many people were away from their homes. At the time, the city's population was about 18,500 people. The entire city flooded, but because many people weren't at their homes, only 15 people died.

The Vanport area is now home to Delta Park and the Portland International Raceway.

To learn more about the Vanport City floods, listen to today's episode of "This Day In Weather History."

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Thumbnail: Photo by Croton Studios. Courtesy of New Westminster Public Library

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