Remembering the Vanport campus

Smiling and talking animatedly, Ray Lokting looked through Viking yearbooks from his time at Vanport Extension Center, the first incarnation of Portland State.

Smiling and talking animatedly, Ray Lokting looked through Viking yearbooks from his time at Vanport Extension Center, the first incarnation of Portland State. Classes were taught in a one-level building located near the Columbia River.  

“There were dances every weekend,” he said. “I had about three girlfriends.”

The Columbia River flooded on Memorial Day in 1948, more than 60 years ago this Monday, destroying Vanport City and the college.  

Lokting had enrolled at Vanport when he came back to Oregon from the war in 1946, the year Vanport Extension Center was founded by Navy veteran Stephen Epler to accommodate returning G.I.s.

The surrounding city of Vanport—located outside the northern boundary of contemporary Portland where Delta Park and the Portland International Raceway now stand—was a public housing project constructed in 1943 to shelter the burst of wartime workers employed by Kaiser Shipyards in Portland and Vancouver, Wash.

At the time of the flood, Vanport was the second largest city in Oregon, and Vanport Extension Center numbered about 2,000 students.  

Lokting heard news of the flood on the radio. That night, he worked until dawn stacking sandbags along the Columbia River. A 200-foot section of the dike had collapsed, he said.

The flood’s casualty count was reportedly 15.

“Official numbers and what the residents claim differ widely,” said American River College Professor Rudy Pearson, who wrote the 1995 dissertation “African Americans in Portland, Oregon, 1940–1950.”

Ed Washington, community liaison for diversity initiatives at PSU, was an 11-year-old living in Vanport in 1948.  

“My mom packed a suitcase with a change of clothes for all of us,” Washington said. “We went up to what is now I-5 and waited. The water came through fast and powerful. When the water hit the houses, it took them right off the foundations and moved the roofs right around, like playing Monopoly.”

Vanport was originally constructed as a temporary wartime site. Only major buildings, like the movie theatre and the schools, sat on concrete foundations. The city’s population of around 20,000—about 25 percent black—lived in houses built on wood pallets. 

 “In a broad context, I see similarities to Katrina,” Pearson said. “One is pressure to get rid of ‘blighted areas,’ as both Vanport and the 9th Ward were called.”

Washington, a former resident of Vanport City’s African American neighborhood, moved to Oregon from Alabama at the age of seven.  

“It wasn’t like Birmingham,” he said. “I didn’t have to ride on the back of the bus or go to an all-black school, but there were still kids who would call you derogatory terms.”

Washington’s former classmate, Hal Freitag, remembers sitting near Washington in school. Both boys’ fathers worked in the shipyard.  

“The people in Portland looked down on Vanport as white trash or Negro trash,” Freitag said. “I learned that when I went to Portland public schools after the flood.”

Freitag later attended Portland State College in the 1960s before the school attained university status in 1969 and became PSU.

PSU had been granting degrees since 1955, when the Portland State Extension Center, a relocation of the Vanport Extension Center to the Lincoln Hall building that is part of today’s campus, became a four-year institution and changed its name to Portland State College.

While the Vanport Extension Center lived on through PSU and was called “the college that wouldn’t die” by the Christian Science Monitor, the Columbia River site of its college town was gradually covered. 

Native Portlander Terri Johnson lives in a house next to the Portland International Raceway, on the land where Vanport once stood. Her aunt was a nurse at the Vanport hospital. Walking her dog in the rain one day, Johnson noticed a piece of pottery buried in the mud.  

“I went to the store and brought a screwdriver, the longest one I could find, a bucket and yellow gloves,” she said. “I’ve been digging ever since.”

Over the years, Johnson has unearthed boxes of objects from Vanport daily life, she said. She let Portland artist Linda Wysong cast the artifacts in her design of the TriMet Delta Park/Vanport MAX station in 2000.  

“I felt there needed to be a marker of this place that had been so important,” Wysong said.

She lobbied for the station’s name to include a reference to Vanport.  

Johnson is staging a Vanport remembrance tour this Tuesday. She has invited many of the seniors frequenting the Rose Center, an offshoot of the Salvation Army in Northeast Portland that caters to the elderly—many of whom are former residents of Vanport.  

Remembering Vanport and the era of his youth, Lokting said, “It’s hard to explain what life was like then because it was so different. Everything was economical.”

Lokting was a student officer at Vanport Extension Center and a member of the speech and debate team. He started college at 23, having worked in a shipyard after high school and served in the war, achieving the rank of captain. 

“We were at an age where we had lost the opportunity to go to college right out of high school,” Lockting said. “I couldn’t afford [University of] Oregon or Oregon State. Vanport was ideal for people my age coming out of the service.”

In the wake of the 1948 flood, Lokting attended a summer session at UO and took evening classes that year, graduating with a business degree in 1949. His classmates mostly went to Lewis & Clark College or took night classes to finish their education.  

Two of Lokting’s three children attended PSU, and Lokting and his wife go to PSU football games and visit the campus once a month for meetings with their Scandinavian group.  

“It’s a wonderful urban university now,” he said. ?