Support BikePortland

Where We Ride: You’ve probably ridden in Vanport, the former city wiped out by a flood 71 years ago today

Posted by on May 30th, 2019 at 4:38 pm

Ever raced cyclocross, mountain, or road bikes at Portland International Raceway? Ever biked on the Columbia River Slough northwest of Kenton? Or maybe you’ve enjoyed the annual Winter Wonderland Light Show?

If you answered yes to any of those, you’ve ridden on the streets, across the yards, and around the borders of Vanport.

This bustling, working-class town was once Oregon’s second largest city. It was also a place where 40% of the residents were black. Tragically, Vanport was obliterated 71 years ago today when dikes that surrounded it gave way. 15 people died.

Advertisement

What happened at Vanport is a painful part of Oregon’s racist history — and it remains relevant today as we continue to struggle with complicated web of race, housing, and sweeping demographic shifts. I still have a lot to learn about Vanport; but I can no longer ride there without thinking about its history. That land is so much more than just a cool place to ride bikes.

Here’s that map again:

(Oregon Historical Society)

Those two yellow dots mark where the images below were taken:

(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

And here’s a shot of the flood damage, with the yellow dots showing where I snapped those photos:

(Oregon Historical Society)

If you want to learn more Vanport, just Google it and start your journey. Also, check out the Vanport Mosaic Festival, going on now through June 5th.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

Never miss a story. Sign-up for the daily BP Headlines email.

BikePortland needs your support.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

11 Comments
  • Avatar
    Karl D May 30, 2019 at 4:50 pm

    Great Vanport ride Friday May 31, 7 pm. https://www.shift2bikes.org/calendar/event-11885 Kenton Max Stop, 8471 N Interstate Ave, Portland
    Paul Bunyan

    Karl

    Fri, May 31, 2019, 7:00 PM, Ride at 7:10

    Bike the cart path at Heron Lakes Golf to see the best Heron Rookery in Portland. Sunset over the slough and ending with beers at Lost and Found. Six mile loop ride. Great ride for kids 8 and up with a bike with gears. https://www.facebook.com/events/340849429966598/

    Recommended Thumb up 6

  • Avatar
    Dave May 31, 2019 at 8:15 am

    I think about Vanport every time I cross the Interstate bridge or walk in downtown Vancouver–70 years is the blink of an eye in the history of a river and I can’t believe that the condo developments on both sides of the Columbia were ever allowed. There but for the grace of dam engineers they go!

    Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Avatar
    hoodidge May 31, 2019 at 8:44 am

    Thank you so much Jonathan for including consistent reminders in your writing as to the history of the land we live, play and travel on! Often times the history is uncomfortable, sad or horrific and includes a hefty dose of racism and white supremacy. But that’s the work we have/need to do; remember what happened, face it, then face ourselves, the privileges we have and our unavoidable role in the system that created those horrors.

    Thank you again, please keep up the work.

    Recommended Thumb up 4

  • Avatar
    Alex Reedin May 31, 2019 at 9:25 am

    Most of Vanport became Heron Lakes Golf Course, one of Portland’s SIX city-owned golf courses. Having a conversation about whether Portland should own ANY golf courses is long overdue. Commissioner Hardesty has advocated redeveloping one of the City’s golf courses – this one doesn’t make a lot of sense due to the flood risk, but IMO it would make a lot of sense for it to be re-wilded.

    https://pamplinmedia.com/pt/9-news/421731-325620-hardesty-charts-ambitious-course-ive-been-very-busy

    Recommended Thumb up 8

    • Avatar
      Middle of The Road Guy May 31, 2019 at 9:40 am

      I like that idea. Plus, the golf courses are financial losers.

      My main concern is that the “re-wilded” areas would turn into giant homeless camps, but maybe it is an opportunity to create some more Dignity Village-type locations.

      Recommended Thumb up 3

      • Avatar
        X May 31, 2019 at 10:30 am

        Dignity Village is in a low-lying area already. I don’t know its elevation but it’s the sort of place where floods can happen. Is that a good plan for all similar developments?

        Recommended Thumb up 1

        • Avatar
          Middle of The Road Guy May 31, 2019 at 11:15 am

          I’m not sure there is all that much elevated ground that would be an option for a Dignity Village type location and I honestly can’t say whether or not Dignity Village has flooded out before. Do you know? I’d assume if it was prone to frequent floods, we would have heard about it.

          Recommended Thumb up 0

    • Avatar
      Dan A May 31, 2019 at 9:53 am

      ….with simple singletrack winding through it.

      Recommended Thumb up 5

      • Avatar
        Brian May 31, 2019 at 10:06 am

        Imagine that….
        Reminds me, I wonder where we are at with that MTB Master Plan.

        Recommended Thumb up 3

        • Avatar
          jered May 31, 2019 at 11:00 am

          At the NWTA monthly meeting I got a reminder that calls to city hall help.

          PLEASE call city hall and leave messages for the commissioners and the mayor asking about the status of the OFFROAD CYCLING MASTER PLAN. The pressure will help. As concerned cyclists we need to be as vocal and PERSISTENT as the NIMBYs!!!

          CALL YOUR ELECTED OFFICIALS!

          Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Avatar
    Dardanelles June 1, 2019 at 11:05 pm

    An old timer I knew, who passed away recently, told me about that flood. His family had a farm on an island in the river. They got word the flood was coming and hurriedly had to get the cows onto a neighbor’s barge. He also talked about going out to Vanport before the floor, for dancing and baseball games I think.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Avatar