PSU at Vanport

The Project: Vanport was the home of the Vanport Extension Center, the institution that grew to become Portland State University (PSU). Volunteers from PSU, OTAK and the City of Portland’s division of Parks and Recreation are working together to place a permanent interpretive placemarker at the original location of the Vanport Extension Center. Thanks to the generous support of OTAK, a professional design for the placemarker is now ready for fabrication and fundraising has begun for this work. View the designs below and learn more about the history of PSU at Vanport.

Interpretive sign designs by Otak (

PSU at Vanport: Placemarking for the Future

Portland State University first opened in 1946 as the Vanport Extension Center for 220 students in Vanport, a city built to house wartime shipyard workers. After surviving a devastating flood in 1948, PSU moved three times before finding its permanent home in 1952 in the heart of downtown Portland, Oregon.

Since then, the university has grown into Oregon’s most diverse urban public research university with 26,000 students and more than 200 degree programs.

Beginnings, 1946: “We are starting from nothing.”

Celebrating end of World War II in Portland. (August 1945.) (Oregon Historical Society, No. 84845.)

When World War II ended in 1945, the surge of returning veterans triggered demand for greater opportunities for higher education in Portland. The result was the Vanport Extension Center, which opened its doors in the summer of 1946 offering two years of college study. Stephen Epler, Portland State’s founder, found the location and assembled facilities, faculty, and staff in only three months to open the Vanport Extension Center. “As you know,” he wrote to one of the first professors, “we are starting from nothing.”

Looking west at Vanport City, the second largest city in Oregon during World War II. (Circa 1942.) (Oregon Historical Society, No. 68762.)

Vanport City was established in 1942 and lasted only six years. It was a hastily constructed public housing project, built by wartime industrialist Henry J. Kaiser to meet the housing needs of World War II workers at the shipyards in Portland and Vancouver, Washington.

Vanport street scene with residences and water tower in the background. (1943) (City of Portland Archives, A2001-025-627.)

This temporary city was officially named Vanport because of its central location between Portland and Vancouver. The city was built on 650 acres of Columbia River floodplain, near the current site of Delta Park, Portland International Raceway, and Heron Lakes Golf Course. After shipyard workers left Vanport following World War II, the city gained a new purpose with the establishment of a temporary college. Officially designated Vanport Extension Center, the school’s primary purpose was to educate servicemen and women returning from the war.

At the end of World War II, military veterans flooded back to the United States armed with the GI Bill. But veterans returning to Portland faced a dilemma: There was no four-year public institution of higher education in the city. The solution was Vanport Extension Center.

Students take a break in the cramped quarters of the Vanport snack bar.

Housed in begged-and-borrowed classrooms in Vanport City, the school was overcrowded and understaffed from day one. As early as December 1946, the student newspaper published a letter proposing a permanent institution.

The state board president, Edgar W. Smith, foresaw continued veteran growth and promised students that as long as enrollment kept above 1,000, the school was safe for another year. However, the future course of this “temporary” extension center was far from certain.

Students crowded into a Vanport classroom.

The Memorial Day Flood of 1948

“Remember: Dikes are safe at present. You will be warned if necessary. You will have time to leave. Don’t get excited.”

Thus read a bulletin to Vanport City residents from the Housing Authority of Portland on May 30, 1948.

The failed dike that allowed flood water from Smith Lake (right) to pour into Vanport City (left).
Aerial view of extensive flooding of Vanport City. (City of Portland Archives, A1999-004.1138.)

In spite of repeated assurances from the authorities, the Columbia River broke through the dike protecting the city on the soggy afternoon of Sunday, May 30, the same day the Housing Authority issued its reassuring bulletin.

Force of the floodwaters caused widespread destruction, destroying the city. (City of
Portland Archives, A 2001-083.)

A 10-foot wall of water rushed in, and within two hours, the homes and possessions of many
students and families, as well as the Extension Center buildings, were under several feet of water.

The flood of 1948 destroyed the Vanport Extension Center.

Vanport City was destroyed, and the dreams of a permanent college appeared to be lost.

The road to college status was filled with political potholes. After the flood, Chancellor Paul C. Packer suggested that the destruction of the facilities and most of the student housing made this “a good time to close the facility.”

Donald Parker (second from left) and others display Extension Center signs recovered from the flood waters. (Oregon Historical Society, No. 68991.)

1949: After the Flood

After the flood, Epler and his colleagues scrambled to keep the center alive. Portland Public Schools offered the use of Grant High School in northeast Portland for the 1948 summer session. There was a much larger problem to solve: finding a location for the coming fall. The federal government came to the rescue. Space for the new campus was found in North Portland in buildings formerly occupied by the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation. The new campus soon came to be known affectionately as “Oregon Ship.”

Students named the Oregon shipyard building Vanport College, even though it was still officially Vanport Extension Center. Director Stephen Epler wryly observed, “We are fortunate in having probably the largest single college parking lot in the nation and perhaps the world.”

Students change the name of the building to Portland State College in anticipation of the
institution’s future, even though its official name upon moving to Portland in 1952 would be
Portland State Extension Center.

During this uncertain time, the masthead of the student paper, Vanguard, began to appear with the subhead “The College That Wouldn’t Die,” inspired by a national story in the Christian Science Monitor about Vanport’s post-flood success. The school’s commitment and fighting spirit furthered its growth at Oregon Ship from 1948 to 1952.

State Representative Rudie Wilhelm receives a commemorative pen from Stephen Epler (left) for co-sponsoring the bill that moved the extension center to the Park Blocks in downtown Portland. Joe Holland, faculty member and athletic director, and Phil Putnam, Vanport Center’s assistant director, applaud. (1949)

On April 15, 1949, Governor Douglas McKay authorized $875,000 to purchase the former Lincoln High School building on the Park Blocks as a permanent home for the Portland State Extension Center. At the time, Portland was the largest metropolitan area in the United States without a public four-year college. After extensive repairs following its purchase in 1949, the former Lincoln High building was rechristened Old Main in 1952; Portland State ended its life at Vanport and began its life on the Park Blocks.