Ed Washington Remembers Vanport City
by Summer 2000 PSU Capstones Class

Ed Washington. Courtesy of
Portland Metro Council

   World War II left varied impressions on the residents of Vanport -- a city constructed for the sole purpose of housing war industry workers and immigrants. Ed Washington, whose family moved to the Pacific Northwest from Alabama in 1944, has vivid memories of Vanport City. The following quotes are reflections of his childhood experiences in Vanport, the city that washed away on Memorial Day, 1948.

Photo courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers

It was a wonderful place to grow up as a kid. The memories of growing up and living there have never left me. I have friends and we will converse about growing up in Vanport. It was sort of a magic place for kids. It was just different. I think part of the fact that we were all thrown together there during this tumultuous time during the Second World War where life was really being lived to its fullest.

   Integration -- a new and foreign concept for many migrants -- presented a challenge to Vanport residents.

I mean you have to realize that Vanport was a place where people from all over the country were thrown into this huge housing project. Many of those people had never been around Blacks. Many of those people had never been around other Whites, other than just like them.

   The city's layout created a sense of uniformity.

Vanport, as a seven-year-old kid was a very exciting place. For me, leaving the South, we had a house. We lived in a house. We never lived in an apartment. We never lived in a project. So, in a project, when you're thrown into a large project with about 30,000 other people . . . I mean you know it's a city. It's a self-contained, prefabricated city. It had stores, you know . . . shopping centers, icehouses, because we didn't have refrigerators. School nurseries. Everything. Everything in Vanport was numbered. Icehouses #1-50. Schools, 1, 2, and 3; shopping center 1, 2, and 3; recreation center 1, 2, 3, and 4. So, everything was numbered.

   Washington, now a Portland Metro City Councilman, experienced his first entrepreneurial endeavors in Vanport City.

I mean, as far as if you had a wagon, you could go to the store and haul peoples' groceries home for them. Or you could go to the icehouse, and people would ask you to go and get ice for them . . . you know, because everybody had iceboxes. So, you could make a lot of money as a kid in Vanport. there was a lot of money being made during the war. A lot of that was passed on down to us. You didn't get rich but you made . . . if you went and got somebody a twenty-five pound block of ice, they gave you a quarter. A quarter would go along ways in those days. So, it was a very exciting city . . . it was a very thriving city. In addition to the fact that you had 3 or 4 recreation centers, every major neighborhood had a rcreation center. Every major area had schools and it was just . . . it was a federal school system. It was just an amazing place to grow up as a kid.

   The city of Vanport, although originally considered a temporary entity, came to its end much sooner than expected. The Vanport Flood on May 30, 1948 destroyed the entire city. Tens of thousands of families were left to start their lives from scratch.

The Vanport Flood affected us substantially. It sort of totally destroyed our lives. Everything we had we lost; pictures, Bibles, all of our clothes and utensils. Everything that meant you had to start from zero. There was no housing so we had to live in churches. .
Houses careened off of their foundations during
the 1948 Flood, and were swept into the Columbia.
When the waters receded, only debris remained.
Courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers