I learned to drive in a car with a three-speed, column-mounted – “three on the tree” – manual transmission. My father was my instructor. He would drive us out past Jantzen Beach, then still an amusement park, not yet a shopping destination for Vancouver residents to avoid paying Washington sales tax. When we found the abandoned streets of Vanport, we switched places, and I practiced where were still roads, and outlines of where buildings once stood, but nothing else. Vanport was named for its location on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, between Vancouver and Portland. The town was wiped out in the flood of 1948; that’s all I knew.
The first residents of Vanport, soon to be Oregon’s second-largest city, arrived in December 1942. Henry J Kaiser operated three shipyards in the Portland area, each working three shifts per day. Kaiser’s workforce totaled nearly 100,000. The wartime economy, with most able-bodied males in the armed forces, necessitated recruiting around the country for workers. The problem was that Portland had nowhere near enough housing to accommodate the influx.
Using Federal money, Kaiser built housing on a flood plain. In a matter of weeks, more than 9,000 living units went up, mostly prefabricated wooden structures of fourteen apartments. Population quickly exceeded 40,000, more than a third African-American. In 1940, Oregon’s black population was less than 1,800. The community, never incorporated as a city, had shopping centers, a movie theatre, hospital, schools and a college, and twenty-four-hour day care.
As World War II neared its end, ship construction slowed and Vanport was losing its residents. By 1948, population there were 18,500. Weeks of warm rain after a winter’s heavy snowpack and a failing dike on that Memorial Day inundated the town. After days of reassurance from authorities, residents had a half-hour ‘s notice to evacuate. The African-American evacuees concentrated in the Albina district of north Portland, as the city, by custom and ordinance and real-estate redlining, did not allow blacks to live in other areas.
The Vanport site is now Delta Park, Portland International raceway and Heron Lakes Golf Course. The Albina neighborhood has been thoroughly gentrified. Vanport’s African-America descendants are scattered about east Portland, beyond 122nd Avenue. Vanport College is now Portland State University.
Oh, and after twenty-two years away, I have returned to Oregon and have a new Oregon driver’s license, with the same number as I had before.