70 Years after Vanport, a Survivor Recalls the Flood

The deluge that destroyed Oregon’s second-largest city still resonates in Portland.

By Fiona McCann April 24, 2018 Published in the May 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

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Vanport, once Oregon’s second-largest city and the largest public housing project in the country, was hastily built on the Columbia floodplain to house the World War II influx of workers to the Kaiser shipyards. Roughly a third of the inhabitants were African American. On May 30, 1948, a railroad embankment that served as a dike to hold back the river collapsed. Within an hour, the city was underwater, leaving 15 people dead and 18,000 homeless. Beatrice Gilmore, 86, who now lives in a retirement community in Milwaukie, was one of the survivors.

“We moved into Vanport in 1944. There were so many people of different backgrounds—they came from all over. [As the river rose in 1948] we had been told by the housing authority that if the dikes broke there would be a warning signal and we would have plenty of time to get out of Vanport, or to put our things up high.

We had established the habit of going to the movie theater in the afternoon on Sundays, so I was in the theater with a bunch of other kids. A young man ran up front while the movie was going, and said, 'The dike broke!' We ran out of the theater and then we heard the siren. I ran home and my mother was trying to grab some stuff to put in the car, and my daddy said, 'We gotta go! We gotta go!'

I was sitting in the backseat of the car, and I looked out the back window and I saw the water. There was all this water coming. I thought we only had a few seconds to live. And the car coughed a little bit and stalled. I was so frightened. All of a sudden we got a boost, and we got up the incline and out of there.

We lost everything. The place was so contaminated that they didn’t let residents back in to certain areas. Our family never did go back. We stayed in Portland and lived in trailers for a while.

I don’t feel angry. I just feel hurt that we were treated the way we were, and sad. I participated a lot in political movements about trying to make a difference and make things better after that. But I’m so grateful because I learned so many lessons from it. And we can’t learn from history if people don’t talk about it.”

Vanport Mosaic Festival 2019

Various times May 21–June 5, various venues, prices vary 

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