PORTLAND, Ore. -- Seventy years after a flood washed it away, Vanport is having something of a comeback.
In February, the Smithsonian Magazine published a long piece about the city’s disappearance. The Oregon Historical Society’s current exhibit features Vanport, too.
But many Portlanders still don’t know the history of the 1948 tragedy that wiped Oregon’s second-largest city off the map. City memorials are hidden beneath moss and blackberries. The flood isn’t taught in Oregon schools.
A team from Concordia University believes they have an idea that will bring the story of Vanport back to life. Working with Beaumont Middle School students, the Concordia group is creating an interactive app and documentary.
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“But time is running out,” Concordia education professor Shawn Daley told the Beaumont students. Few of the 40,000 people who once lived in Vanport remained.
In March, Daley’s team planned to interview six survivors. One died just before the interview. Another suffered a heart attack.
Shipbuilder Henry Kaiser created Vanport in the early days of World War II because he needed a place where his employees – particularly African American workers – could live. The area had few homes, and real estate bigotry prohibited African Americans from living in most of Portland.
Kaiser built his new city on a flood plain in less than a year. It soon became the most state’s most diverse city. About 15 percent of Vanport’s residents were black.
The city had three fire stations, a movie theater and a library. Portland State University got its start there as Vanport Extension Center.
Daley realized last year many of his North Portland neighbors didn’t know any of that history. One of Daley’s Concordia graduate students, Matthew Blanchard, confessed he had grown up across the river in Vancouver – the Van in Vanport – but didn’t know the history either.
Daley and Blanchard began researching, but information about Vanport is scattered across the region. The Oregon Historical Society has some photos. Clark County has others. Portland State University keeps its own records, and the Vanport Multimedia Project has its own slice of history.
Using money from a National Council of Social Studies grant, Daley and Blanchard began to synthesize the information into one cellphone app.
In early March, they drove out to the land where Vanport once stood.
The federal government chose not to rebuild Vanport after the flood. Instead, it became a construction landfill. The city of Portland took it over in 1961. Today, the land holds a golf course and a race track.
The men trudged toward the ninth hole. Their boots squished against the morning dew. Fifteen years ago, Portland State workers installed a few signs on the golf course to memorialize the history. Finally, Daley and Blanchard found a sign, outlined in moss.
“Who’s going to see this except guys playing golf?” Daley said. “Look at what this has become.”
These signs might have been useful once, Blanchard said. But technology allows for something more user-friendly.
Using GIS data and old photographs, Blanchard had created an augmented reality on an app called Junaio. Anyone with the free app could point a cellphone toward Vanport and photographs of the old buildings would appear, situated right on the plots where they once stood in real life.
Blanchard held up his phone. He clicked a marker for the old theater, and a photograph and blurb came up.
Daley and Blanchard retraced their steps back across the greens toward what used to be Victory Avenue.
“This was the main drag,” Blanchard said.
Now, a man teed up. A heron cut across the sky. A Labrador puppy ran past Daley and Blanchard.
“Ben,” a man yelled for the Labrador.
Daley and Blanchard stopped to talk to the man, who said he had been the greens manager for 28 years. Jesse Goodling told them they could find another sign underneath the flag pole.
“Do you have a lot of people come out to look?” Daley asked.
“Not too much,” Goodling said. “But we find stuff out there all the time when we’re digging irrigation systems, marbles and spoons from Vanport. I have a few in my office.”
Daley made a date to document Goodling’s treasures.
A week later, Daley and Blanchard went to Beaumont Middle, where they had scheduled three Vanport survivors to speak to Kirsten Parrott’s eighth grade U.S. history class.
Parrott has taught at Beaumont since 2001, but she only recently learned about Vanport. The curriculum Portland Public Schools gives her includes only a paragraph about it, she said.
State legislators have urged middle schools to teach Oregon history. A 2013 bill gave the Oregon Department of Education money to create an Oregon Studies program, but it’s still in the early stages, said Markisha Smith, the director of ODE’s equity unit.
Oregon school districts create their own curricula, so the state can’t force any school to study Vanport, but leaders at the state department are interested in sharing the work Daley’s team puts together.
As the survivors pulled out photographs and maps, Parrot told her students to ask about life before the flood.
“Kids have a tendency to focus on disasters,” she said as her kids set up interviewing stations. “These are people who lived there for years before this happened. Let’s learn about what kind of culture they had. Let’s learn about the people not just the tragedy.”
Regina Flowers, now 80, passed around photographs from the Vanport school.
“This is me in my band uniform,” Flowers told the middle-schoolers. “We would go to band in the morning then go to school in a makeshift recreation center.”
“This is not in our history book,” said Beaumont student Kevin Mealy.
James Thompson, now 83, rolled out a map and pointed out the bar where he once refilled olive and cherry bowls. He washed dishes every day but Sunday, he told them.
The morning of the flood, Thompson told the students, Army Corps members rolled out banners saying that levees would hold the Columbia River back. Thompson was heading out to stack sandbags when the river cut a six-foot hole into a railroad embankment that served as a dike.
“We saw this mass of people running down the street and all these cars,” Thompson said. “You couldn’t even move.”
The students videoed Flowers and Thompson with iPads. The footage would become part of the augmented reality. The videos would play as app users scanned the spot where Flowers once played in the band and Thompson washed dishes.
The octogenarians have spent much of their lives talking about the day the Columbia River turned their homes into what Thompson called “splintered wood and rubble.”
“My kids are tired of me talking about it,” Flowers told the class.
This time, she had a rapt audience. This time, her talk would live forever.