The Legacy of the Vanport Flood Told Through Music

Created by Portland State University Student Jarod Pereda

Recently, the Woody Guthrie Center unearthed a secret; long lost sheet music to a Guthrie song about none other than the historic 1948 Vanport Flood (Oregon). The song belongs to a series of songs that Guthrie wrote during his late-career residency in the Pacific Northwest, yet had few public cross-references and only one appearance in a songbook with a brief publication run in the early 1960’s. As it turns out, there is only one recording of this important piece of music online at the time of this post, by the wonderfully talented American roots and semi-educational music duo Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons. Their cover captures the spirit of the Guthrie style. It inspired me to use Guthrie’s ‘Vanport’s Flood’ as a teaching tool, to memorialize the history and tragedy of Vanport and the resilience of its people through the poetry, imagery, and expression of music.

Aerial photo of the aftermath of the 1948 flood. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine.

Aftermath of the 1948 flood. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine.

Page one of Guthrie’s ‘Vanport’s Flood’ (1963)

Page one of Guthrie’s ‘Vanport’s Flood’ (1963)

Music, in its essence, communicates much more than sound, texture, notes, instrumentation, or the versatility and skill of the players themselves, although these are parts that make up the entirety of a moving piece of art. Music has the unique ability to storytell within its own mode, to inspire and combine lived experience, contextual, historical and emotional landscapes. In the case of Guthrie’s tune, the essence of the Vanport story of survivance is well captured in the lyrics of the last verse:

Let hands of every born color
Grab sandbags hammers and nails
I’ll just have to tie me a couple knots
In this old rivers tail;
Let’s build a hundred vanports back
All safe and clean and free
Cause if we let her flood again
It’ll take both you and me

The city was built on a frequently flooded landfill between the mighty Columbia and a slough area, bordered by a railroad line built on an embankment to keep annual waters out, and Denver Avenue. To the north sits Vancouver, Washington and to its immediate south, Portland, Oregon. Delta Park, Portland International Raceway, and the Heron Lakes golf course sit on this land today. The bustling “riverbed” town was complete with schools, shops, a movie theatre, hundreds of homes, public parks, and Vanport College, which would eventually be relocated to downtown Portland and become Portland State University.

This is the wettest month of May
In forty years they’ll say
That melting snow and soggy rains
Hit every town and state
If you live down in a riverbed town
Below that lock or dam
You know how quick a town can go
How friends and homes drift down

Black and white aerial photo of Vanport facing west circa 1943. Denver Avenue on the bottom, the Columbia Slough on the left side. Image courtesy of

Vanport facing west circa 1943. Denver Avenue on the bottom, the Columbia Slough on the left side. Image courtesy of

On May 30th, Memorial Day 1948, Vanport residents woke up to handbills on their front doors stating the following:

The radio and the handbills
They told us not to run
These dikes and dams are holding
So stay inside your homes;
And if this dike starts breaking
We’ll tell you so in time
So you can pack your things and move
But everything’s just fine

The US Army Corps of Engineers had been monitoring the levees and dikes several days previous, and had concluded in their report that there was little risk of damage to the city, despite flooding events in recent weeks in Vancouver and along the Columbia. The rising water broke through the railroad embankment later that evening, flushing away the entire city and leaving residents who were not out picnicking for the holiday less than ten minutes to escape. Within several hours, the physical city that was Vanport was lost to the waters. The official US government report concluded that 15 lives were lost, although oral histories and accounts by friends and family suggest a larger number of residents perished.

But these waters
They broke on in us
Not a warning
Not a chance;
By this wild
Columbia River
Trapped and drowned just like
The rats

A man carries a little boy through waste deep flood waters. The little boy looks into the camera with his arms around the man's nek. Image courtesy The Columbian.

Image courtesy The Columbian.

Vanport was never incorporated into Portland, and was largely governed by the Housing Authority of Portland itself. Law enforcement was managed by Multnomah County. The city was one of the very few places in Oregon where African American, Japanese, Indigenous and Central American families from outside of Oregon could own or rent a house, due to a history of institutional and constitutional racism which had long-standing effects on marginalized populations. Between 1940 and 1945, Portland’s Black population blossomed to about 20,000 following the new jobs required by the growing shipbuilding industry. Nearly 1,200 of Portland’s small Black community of a little less than 2,000 at that time were confined to a two-by-one square mile wide area in the neighborhood of Albina by way of housing discrimination and more blatant segregation laws. Post-flood, this created significant problems for the African American community of Portland in finding housing in the wake of tragedy. Churches in the Albina neighborhood took care of some families, while others were temporarily relocated to cold, starkly industrial Army barracks on Swan Island. The legacy of this massive displacement of about 6,000 people is felt to this day.

Instances of segregation and division implemented by the Housing Authority of Portland were present in some urban blocks of the city, but the people of Vanport themselves were on the forefront of integration in Oregon, which could be seen in the schools, public parks, and activity centers.

The contemporary landscape of Delta Park, and the development since the flood bears the marks of history. Anyone can visit the field at the Historic Vanport Marker that was once a thriving and diverse city of hard-working and adaptable families. Force Lake, a hub of Vanport, as well as other landmarks and remnants of building foundations remain scattered throughout the terrain, some still under the water from 72 years ago, yet some still in view on the land. The landscape speaks to the power of the history of Vanport.

I bring some of this to light with my own addition to the Vanport legacy in the form of the second (I think) ever recording of ‘Vanport’s Flood’ by Woody Guthrie. I captured the current landscape using video from a drone flyover.

Groups like Vanport Mosaic, composed of descendent families and living residents of Vanport seek to place the story of Vanport in the present. They continue celebrating their heritage through collection of oral histories, community activities and meetings, and historic tours of the places most significant to the Vanport story. The story of Vanport has been one of resilience. When the people found themselves at the mercy of cultural institutions and nature, they rose up and held hands not only to cultivate a city, but also to cultivate a spirit of survivance. Guthrie’s piece ‘Vanport’s Flood’ not only captures the story of Vanport, but continues it. I encourage musicians and non-musicians alike to share their cover of the Guthrie classic using the link to the sheet music provided at the top of this post, and continue to build upon the legacy of the city and its people. Music is storytelling and emotional recollection at its heart, yes, but in this case, the muralesque landscapes of Vanport and its blossoming legacy are finding new sounds and colors to paint with, every day.

What do you think of the Guthrie song?

Can you think of other ways we can link up music and archaeology?

Any and all thoughts you have would be appreciated!