Kaiserville: "A Muddy Miracle"

Vanport was built relatively quickly. I used to ride through Vanport when the people were still living there. That would be prior to the flood in '48, when we would go down to the river and of course then, we got through with the Slough, why we would go over to the Columbia River, or the Columbia Slough next to there, and play along the waterfront, and old sawmills and, you know how kids do. So we had to ride through Vanport. . . Victor Nelson, Kenton business owner and childhood resident, 2000

When the U.S. entered World War II on December 8, 1941, dikes and levies stretched between the Columbia Slough and the river. Portland quickly became a shipbuilding center, and a leader in U.S. Liberty Ship production. Entrepeneur Henry J. Kaiser established three shipyards - Oregon Ship, Swan Island, and Vancouver Ship. On September 27, 1941, the Oregon Shipbuilding Yard launched the region's first liberty ship near the St. Johns bridge.

Aerial view of Vanport City. Courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Special "Kaiser trains" recruited workers nationwide for the shipyards. By the end of 1942, as wartime employment reached 75,000 Portland experienced a housing crunch. Employer Henry Kaiser purchased 650 acres of marshy pasture, slough, and truck farm on the Columbia Slough to resolve the problem. Kaiser quickly obtained federal funding to construct housing, and thousands of men and women went to work building Vanport City. Denver Avenue formed the eastern dike for the rapidly-built city. Swift Boulevard lay at the base of the main Columbia River dike. On the west, railroad fill blocked the river, and on the south a dike held back the Columbia Slough. The city, also dubbed "Kaiserville," became home to nearly 40,000 people, nearly 15,000 of them African American, by November 1943.

Vanport's population plummeted to around 18,500 when the war ended in 1945. Residents lost access to wartime goods and services such as recreation centers and the post office. Many city of Portland residents deemed the post-war community, home to low-income people, veterans, and African Americans, undesirable. In 1946 the Housing Authority of Portland attempted to fill Vanport's buildings. It opened a college and a "veteran's village," turning the recreation centers into classrooms and the shopping center into a library. Vanport College enrolled 1,924 students its first year, established a school newspaper (now PSU's Vanguard), and drew national attention for its veteran-college partnership.

Vanport was the nation's largest public housing project, and among Oregon's largest cities. Although it was never incorporated, Vanport services were self-contained. Vanport had: