The Skanner News will host a screening of its new series of Vanport stories. “The Wake of Vanport,” oral history documentary project will show ten new stories of Vanport survivors.
The film will be shown at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 20 at the historic Hollywood Theatre in Northeast Portland. The event is free and open to the public, get tickets through the link below.
The Wake of Vanport chronicles the history surrounding the city of Vanport, a quickly-built workforce housing town that became the most racially-diverse city in Oregon. The town itself was a model for racial integration during a time where most of the nation – including Portland -- was segregated.
Vanport went from being the second largest city in Oregon to completely destroyed in a matter of hours. On Memorial Day, May 30, 1948, the dam protecting the city burst and a 10 ft wall of water destroyed homes, shops, a hospital and a technical college.
Many of the voices in the series describe evacuating in a hurry and having to leave most of their possessions. Curnel Walden remembered his mother packing frantically, grabbing only one bag of clothes.
“We grabbed a bag with a change of clothes for everybody and that’s what we came out with,” he said.
Walden’s family left their home to find his aunt, who also lived in Vanport. As the emergency sirens wailed, she insisted on packing a large trunk of possessions.
He said everyone begged her to stop; telling her there was no time to pack. Ultimately, his aunt packed her trunk and got it out before the flood hit.
The documentary series has expanded to include other voices who are closely related to the era such as Henry Kaiser, grandson of Henry J. Kaiser, the industrialist who owned the shipyards and built the Vanport housing project.
Another new perspective to the documentary series is that of the relief workers who were called in to help as the floodwaters began to fill the town. Melvin Osbeck, who was a teenager at the time of the flood, volunteered to help.
Osbeck called the relief effort “organized chaos” and said that volunteer effort was dangerous due to muddy sinkholes in the area. Sometimes the water only came up to his knees but people couldn’t tell where the ground had gotten too soft.
“You’d be surprised, you’ll hit a sinkhole and you’ll be gone,” Osbeck said.
Most of the narrators of the Vanport documentaries were children or young adults at the time of the flood. Some of them spoke of an idyllic childhood where life was humble, yet relaxed. They remember the flimsy construction of the buildings and a lack of television. But they also recall happiness riding bikes or playing at the playground down the street from the hospital.
Some spoke of a kind of bond among Vanport survivors. Survivor Betty Duelen said that city wasn’t often talked about, but it was remembered by the children who had lived there.
Dorothy and Hurtis Hadley were both survivors of Vanport and ultimately high school sweethearts who married. Like most children of the time, Vanport was a frightening experience for them, seeing their families rush out of their homes at dinner time.
“Mother had set the table and so she just took the tablecloth and tied it into four corners with all the food on it and we left with that and the clothes on our back,” Dorothy said.
But the experience also made them live boldly and have a better life after Vanport. Hurtis started the band The Fabulous Majestics and had some success. He invested in their prosperity by interning as a baker and then later opening the first black-owned bakery in Oregon.
Though he and Dorothy were worried about running their own business and setting up shop in then-rural Oregon City, they went forward and thrived.
“When we started and opened the bakery, the community came and we were busy from day one, around the blocks people flowed in the business,” he said.
For more stories of survival, check out the film screening this Sunday at the Hollywood Theatre. Tickets are free, but reservations are required.