About the Project

 

 

During World War II, Vanport served as a federal housing project mainly for Kaiser shipyard workers and their families.  By 1943, the population peaked at about 40,000 people, making it the second largest city in Oregon at the time. Located in what is now the Kenton neighborhood, Vanport was washed away in a flood on May 30, 1948, displacing approximately 18,500 residents and killing at least 15 people.

Today, all that remains are the memories of the survivors and their families, and a small piece of concrete foundation from the original Vanport movie theater.

In order to honor all those who lived and worked here, volunteers have initiated a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization named the  Vanport Placemarking Project (VPP). The goals of VPP are to mark significant physical locations of the historic Vanport site to provide a place for people to learn, connect, and share stories and memories of Vanport.

Alma an elder and former Vanport resident is standing in front of an existing historic marker, pointing to a historic B&W image that is significant to her memories.
Alta High Elk recalls her childhood memories of Vanport.

Project Inspiration

Maryhelen Kincaid, Vanport Placemarking’s founder, has served as a board member of the Multnomah County Drainage District Peninsula District #2, Port of Portland Citizen Advisory Council, and the East Columbia Neighborhood Association. She learned of Vanport the same way most Oregonians do, through the story  of a dramatic, devastating flood. When she casually mentioned to Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish that Vanport ought to be celebrated as a living, working, breathing city, he agreed – and then charged her with getting it done.

The sheer power of commemorating Vanport’s life (as opposed to its ending) has drawn a cohort of people who want to help. Nick Fish paved the way, opening doors and making connections in the City of Portland and Portland Parks that enabled Vanport Placemarking to begin. As the project has evolved, more and more partners and collaborators have joined in the efforts to commemorate Vanport and share its stories.
 
The historic site of Vanport now houses the Portland International Raceway (PIR), Heron Lakes municipal golf course, public parks, and wetlands. Many visitors to the area have no idea that a city of over 40,000 people had once thrived on this 650 acres of land. By marking this site with permanent signs and sculpture that helps tell stories, and by using modern technologies such as augmented reality and audio boxes to reach broader audiences, we will share Vanport’s history and the chronicles of those who once called Vanport their home.

 

Early iteration of sign to be placed near the entrance of PIR.
Diagram of Vanport Placemarking Sign showing basic design and size.

 Project Goals

The Vanport Placemarking Project is installing signage in strategic locations to highlight Vanport’s history and share how it has shaped and impacted the environment and people, including Black communities, women, and Indigenous peoples. In the future, we hope to also incorporate the historical importance of the site for Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican communities.

Additionally, we are partnering with SERA Architects, a Portland-based architecture and design firm, to develop an Augmented Reality (AR) app which will overlay Vanport structures over the current landscape. The app will give visitors the experience of seeing what Vanport looked like prior to its destruction in the Flood of 1948.

Banner showing B&W arial images of Vanport on the left 1943 on the right flood of 1948.
Vanport Placemarking Project banner hung on Portland International Raceway grand stand.

Along with building physical signs, we are working to obtain National Register of Historical Places designation for Vanport. We also table at local events, collaborate on research projects, and share the story of Vanport and its communities through our website and communications. To learn more about recent project developments, visit our News page.

 

The Vanport Placemarking Project is an effort to commemorate areas and create space for others to share and reflect on their own experiences and connections to Vanport. We recognize that the development and ramifications of the Homesteading Act of 1862, the levee system, wartime housing projects, and the 1948 flood have all impacted local communities in different ways, especially for Indigenous, Black, and low-income communities.

Signs alone are not enough. This project is simply a starting point to help visitors learn from each other’s experiences.