In 1948, six-year-old Hurtis Hadley was flying a kite on Memorial Day weekend when the water came and submerged his town of Vanport.
Hadley, now 74, recalls that day while sitting at a Formica table in the bow of a small ’67 Airstream trailer. It is another Memorial Day weekend, 69 years later. The trailer has been converted into a recording studio, and three UO graduate students are seated near him, documenting his stories. Inside the trailer, the air is still, hot, and stagnant.
Winnie Huang, Whitney Gomes, and Viktoria Haiboniuk are among nine students from the School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC) who are preserving oral histories in what is called a “story harvest.” Their project is in conjunction with Vanport Mosaic, a festival that celebrates the history of the ill-fated town once tucked between the contemporary Portland city boundary and the Columbia River.
Vanport—named for Vancouver and Portland—was destroyed in 1948 when a 200-foot section of the dike holding back the river collapsed during a flood. By nightfall, the burg that was home to 17,000—about one-third of them Black—had completely disappeared, leaving 15 people dead and thousands homeless.
The students are about to delve firsthand into a kind of journalism that cannot be taught in a lecture, one involving live interviews and deeply personal stories.
The fan at the rear of the trailer is off. It must be as silent as possible; no collateral noise from any source is allowed to distract from the voices that are being recorded.
Hadley recalls the moment when the water began seeping in. It was the afternoon of Sunday, May 30, and once the deluge arrived in Vanport—the second-largest city in Oregon during World War II—it swallowed the town, not in a gulp but in a creeping, uniform sweep.
He was playing in a field along the edge of town, right beneath the railroad embankment that served as a dike to restrain the Columbia River, which was swollen with an abundance of recent rain.
The Housing Authority of Portland had assured the community that the dikes would hold, issuing a statement:
DIKES ARE SAFE AT PRESENT.
YOU WILL BE WARNED IF NECESSARY.
YOU WILL HAVE TIME TO LEAVE.
DON’T GET EXCITED.
But that afternoon, Hadley says, a train thundered across the tracks above the dike with enough resonance to shift the embankment, allowing the Columbia River to rush in. Minutes later, the boy was running home to tell his mother that the water was on its way.
He nods, and waits a moment before he starts. “I ran into the house and I told my mother that the water’s coming,” he says. “My mother flagged down the first car going up the hill to get out of the way of the water. By the time we got up on top of the elevation, you could see the houses and stuff crumbling down.”
The students capturing Hadley’s narrative are in a class taught by Andrew DeVigal, chair of journalism innovation and civic engagement and the first professor of practice in the SOJC.
Graduate students from the Historic Preservation Program in the College of Design are also part of the project, getting experience in collecting data and researching historically significant areas.
Jim Buckley, venerable chair in historic preservation and associate professor, says, “Our students said, ‘We don’t know how to interview,’ and the J-school students said, ‘We don’t know much about the neighborhood history.’ They learned from each other in doing the project.”
The history of Vanport and the Albina neighborhood—where most of the survivors relocated and which is also recognized in the annual festival—should be well-known, but it has settled in between folds of time, a lost tragedy barely remembered by those who weren’t there.
When World War II created a never-ending appetite for ships, shipyard owner Henry J. Kaiser supplied the demand and built Vanport to house workers. After the war, 10,000 Black residents remained in Vanport, due largely to discriminatory housing practices in Portland.
Another Vanport survivor tells her story. Mariah Taylor adjusts her vibrantly colored blouse and leans into the microphone.
“I am one of 25 children,” she begins. “My parents were sharecroppers in Atlanta, Texas. I came at the age of eight in 1947, lived on Denver Avenue. In Vanport.”
The retired pediatric nurse practitioner, now 77, recalls bits and pieces of her Vanport childhood and the neighborhood of Albina, where her family relocated after the flood and where Taylor still resides.
“Now I see gentrification,” Taylor says. “I don’t see a thriving community or the sense of togetherness that we had. We had landmarks that are now gone. And I can’t believe the people that have never heard of Vanport.”
Gomes, a Portlander and multimedia graduate student, says of Taylor, “I had no idea what to expect. After hearing her story, I better understood that the gentrification of Portland—as a process—did not begin in the most recent couple decades, but rather its roots go much deeper and farther back than that.”
After recording Hadley, Haiboniuk was thoughtful.
“Initially, I thought we would just be conducting interviews, as usual,” she says. “But this experience taught me to treat interviewees as narrators, listen closely to their story, rather than trying to find ‘the bite.’”
In the Vancouver Avenue church parking lot where the Airstream sits, volunteers wait to tell their histories, fanning themselves and sipping cold water. DeVigal assists them with forms and answers questions, as does his wife, Laura Lo Forti, who cofounded Vanport Mosaic. Their seven-year-old daughter, Viola, plays around the Airstream, but stops when a breeze picks up and delivers a stream of puffs from a nearby cottonwood tree. The effect is startling; in the heat of the day, in the beaming sunshine, it looks as if it is snowing.
She points to the sudden and surprising influx in the air, floating and sweeping along, and smiles.
“Maybe those are the memories coming back,” she says, to the delight of all within earshot.
—By Laurie Notaro
Laurie Notaro is a New York Times bestselling author. Her most recent book is Crossing the Horizon.