Laura Lo Forti

A flood of memory, a mosaic of the future

ArtsWatch Weekly: The Vanport Mosaic Festival goes virtual, bringing the legacy of the great flood of 1948 into contemporary Portland

ON MEMORIAL DAY IN 1948 A RAILROAD BERM BURST in the lowlands just south of the Columbia River and north of Portland, sending a swiftly moving wall of water over the edge and inundating the city of Vanport, killing 15 people, leaving 17,500 homeless, and essentially wiping the city off the map. Vanport had been hastily constructed six years before to house workers and their families building warships in the Kaiser shipyards of Portland and Vancouver. At its height it had had a population of 40,000, making it the second-biggest city in Oregon at the time. In the decades since, the disaster has been forgotten by many, lost in the march of “progress” (Delta Park and the Portland International Speedway now sit where Vanport once thrived). For others it’s become an almost mythological touchstone, an emblem of what Portland and Oregon had been and what it would become, especially in its attitudes and actions about race. As Brett Campbell put it in his 2015 review of Rich Rubin’s play Cottonwood in the Flood, which debuted at an early Vanport Mosaic Festival and was set in Vanport in the 1940s, the city became, “along with Celilo Falls, Oregon’s Atlantis.” 

Henk Pander, “Vanport,” watercolor, 40 x 60 inches, from his series of large history paintings of the flood and its aftermath. Pander will be part of the Vanport Mosaic virtual festival in an online conversation, “Painting History,” with Chisao Hata and other artists who have depicted Vanport in their work. Image © Henk Pander 

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Vanport Mosaic: story comes home

The Mosaic's citywide exhibits and events bring the many stories of Vanport back to life 70 years after the flood changed Portland history

“Stories need to be freed to do their work.” — Laura Lo Forti

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Memorial Day, 1948, was a seminal moment in the evolution of contemporary Portland. On that day, the city of Vanport, hastily constructed to house workers at the Kaiser Shipyards during World War II, was wiped out when a dike gave way at 4:05 p.m. The swelling Columbia River came crashing through the breach, and by nightfall, there were at least 15 dead. Vanport, at one point the largest housing project of its kind in the United States and the second largest city in Oregon, was under water and some 18,500 people were left homeless.

A few of the fasces of Vanport. Photo: The City of Portland Archives

This Memorial Day week – Wednesday-Monday, May 23-28 – the Vanport Mosaic will commemorate the 70th anniversary of that cataclysmic event with a four-day festival of “exhibits, theater performances, a reunion/celebration of former Vanport residents, documentary screenings and recordings, poetry, tours of the historic Vanport City area and community engagement activities.” You can see the full schedule here.

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