Shipyards on the Columbia River
Portland, OR WWII Article
Defense Housing Projects Built for the
Shipyards on the Columbia River
Shipyards on the Columbia River
As the United States entered into World War II demand for war materials required a massive effort to fill those needs. Portland, Oregon located at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers was an ideal location for the manufacturing plants that were required to equip the military effort. In 1939, the recently completed Bonneville Dam, supplied the essential electricity to power those plants. The migration of people who came to fill the demand for workers included about 194,000 people. Of these about 22,500 were African-Americans. Over 150,000 people worked in 85 shipyards in the area in 1945. The change in the demographic makeup of Portland due to this migration would be a defining legacy for many years to come.
Henry Kaiser was the mastermind behind ship building on the Columbia River when the United States entered World War II. He built and operated three shipyards, one in Vancouver and two in Portland, which began operation in early 1942. By the end of 1942, they employed 76,000 people. The number of people a year later had grown to 97,000. To meet the needed housing for workers they built six housing projects. The projects housed 45,000 people. When city officials were slow to begin the needed housing, he purchased 648 acres outside of Portland to build a large project. He feared that workers would leave because there was a shortage of housing.
Two of the Kaiser shipyards were located across the Columbia River from each other at Ryan Point in Vancouver, Washington, and the third was at Swan Island in Portland, Oregon. These constituted the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation (OSC). This was a well-protected inland port that had water and rail transportation for needed materials. It was a natural choice for the large projects. Over all 125,000 people worked in the Kaiser shipyards during the war. These shipyards operated around the clock to produce ships for the military. The Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation (OSC), was located in Portland’s St. Johns neighborhood. During WWII, the Oregon shipyards constructed 322 Liberty ships for the national fleet, more than any other shipyard in the country.
The Housing Authority of Portland (HAP) was created on December 11,1941, when the great depression left many people unemployed and homeless, and war had just been declared. The great influx of shipyard workers would be a strong test of the effectiveness of this government agency. Within two years, housing was built for 72,000 inhabitants and it barely met the need for the influx of the growing population. The aim of HAP was to provide complete and affordable housing to meet the needs of those employed in wartime industries. After the war, the focus was on assisting low-income people with housing and home ownership. Another vital component to the housing was to maintain social and political status of the workers, especially with racial segregation needs. In 1944 over 6,000 African Americans lived at Vanport, which was three times the number who had lived in Portland in 1942. At that time, the city statutes limited African Americans to living in a small section of the city called Albina, which was not large enough to accommodate the growing African American population. There was segregated housing in Vanport, Cottonwood and Dekum Court. Additional housing for African Americans was made available at Guild's Lake, Linton, Fairview, and East Vanport, as well as several in the Vancouver area.
Most of the defense housing was built on the North Portland Peninsula, located between the Columbia and the Willamette Rivers. These projects were built as small neighborhoods, often with a park, small streets and easy access to the shipyards. During the war they seemed to go no farther east than Martin Luther King Blvd. Vanport was the largest, followed by Guild’s Lake, then St. Johns Woods, Columbia Villa, University Homes, Parkside Homes, and Hudson Homes. Smaller projects included Dekum Court, Mountain View Court, Fir Court, Cottonwood Court and Denver Court.
The following are the main defense housing projects of WWII:
University Homes - construction of about 300 temporary units in June 1942 and occupation began September. Located adjacent to University Park, it is bordered by Alaska St., Chautaugua Blvd., Willis St. and Woolsey St. It bordered Columbia Villa and they were between Lombard St. and Columbia Blvd., between Chautaugua Blvd./Washburne Ave. and Dwight Ave.
Columbia Villa – construction began of the 432 units began in May 1942 and occupation started in October. Located adjacent to Columbia Park, it is bordered by Washburne Ave., Winchell St. and Dwight Ave. It was a low-density, suburban-style development with curvilinear streets, many trees, and open space on 82 acres. The barracks-style of housing was used for over sixty years. About ten years ago, a complete reconstruction was planned, it was torn down and a new community was built in 2006.
Dekum Court - construction of 85 permanent units, occupation began in October 1942. Located on Dekum St. and Village Ave., between Rosa Parks Blvd. and Lombard St. It was near University Homes/Columbia Villa.
Guild’s Lake Court - construction of 2248 temporary houses and row houses began in October 1942. It was the second largest wartime housing project in Portland, with over 10,000 people. This project built on a landfill between St. Helens Road and the Willamette River, located near Yeon Ave. Following the Vanport Flood this project became temporary housing for the displaced inhabitants. Many of the African American population moved here due to lack of housing, because of the segregation laws. Eventually it was torn down and the land was used for industrial development.
Gatrell Group - construction of 725 dwellings built on 52 scattered lots in July 1942 and occupation began in October.
Mountain View Court - construction of 100 trailer homes, occupation began in October 1942.
Hudson Homes - construction of 188 units, occupation began in November 1942. Located on Hudson St., bordered by Northgate Park, Houten Ave. and Wall Ave. It was by University Homes/Columbia Villa.
St. Johns Woods - construction of 967 units, occupation began in December 1942. Was located west of Portland Road and between Columbia Blvd. and Smith Lake. It was east of Oswego St., which going south went to Assumption Church on Fessenden St.
Jim Cole shared that, “St. Johns Woods housing was all single homes, not apartments like Vanport. They were built in clusters of four or six units, something resembling a cul-de-sac today. I think they were two bedroom, one bath units. I know the walls were thin and the insulation was poor, as they were cold in the winter. In St. Johns Woods we had a market and a large maintenance area where I remember they stored the coal we used for cooking and heat.” Jim said, “As I can remember, the place we ate in on Sundays was very large. I think it was the dining hall for the workers during the week.”
Parkside Homes - construction of 260 units, occupation began in December 1942. Probably by Pier Park, between Burgard St./Lombard St. and Columbia Blvd. There was a large incinerator by the park that was used to burn garbage. Today it is remembered as Chimney Park and is located off N. City Dump Road.
Fir Court - construction of 72 units, occupation began in December 1942.
Cottonwood Court was an extension of Vanport City.
Denver Court was an extension of Vanport City.
Linnton and Fairview
East Vanport was an extension of Vanport City.
Vanport City - construction of 9,942 units, occupation began in December 1942.
Vanport would be the largest public housing project in the country and would house 50,000 people. It was the second largest city in Oregon and would become a model for integration of the African American community. The announced completion was covered in the Portland Oregonian on August 12, 1943; almost a year after the original plan for 6,022 units was started. At the grand opening that night, the Kaiser Company and the Federal Public Housing Authority turned the administrative responsibility over to the Portland Housing Authority. Vanport was situated half way between the two Kaiser shipyards in Portland and Vancouver and thus received its name recognizing both cities.
Vanport was unique, as it became an independent city, with facilities to meet all the basic needs of its inhabitants. These included the administration buildings, an auditorium, a post office, a cafeteria, two grocery stores, a library, a theatre, and recreation buildings. To meet the needs of children there was six nurseries, an extensive childcare center, two playgrounds, two K-6 Elementary Schools and a 7-8 Middle School. For emergencies, there was a police department, three fire stations and a Kaiser Hospital. The housing included various types of apartments. There was an athletic field and lakes on the grounds.
Women who entered the work force helped to fill the loss of millions of men who were enlisting in the military. When mothers were working, they needed quality childcare. Some found other mothers who could provide childcare, but in the larger housing projects, the childcare centers met those needs. In 1942, the number of working women in Oregon tripled. In a study by the personnel, manager's office of the Oregon Shipyards found that they employed 830 mothers of children from the age of one to six years.
The construction of these projects required a massive effort by builders in the Portland area. They faced difficulties of lack of skilled labor, war restrictions, shortage of materials and the difficult winter weather of 1942. The cooperation of the FPHA was key to expediting the rapid construction to meet the housing needs. At first, the demand for housing was met by using existing housing and converting large homes and buildings into apartments. Then they turned to new construction, but had to economize due to the lack of building materials. The projects were built with greatly reduced building standards. In 1942, the War Housing War Zoning code was adopted, allowing higher density development for workers for the war effort.
The overall total of newly constructed units was more than 18,000, of which each could house a family of four, but may have housed combined groups of individuals or larger families. Columbia Villa and Dekum Court were the only two permanent developments that were to continue as low cost housing following the war. Of the sixteen housing projects administered by HAP, Vanport held more than the total of all the others. There was an expectation that following the war many of the workers would return to the places they had migrated from. They had planned to convert these housing sites to industrial uses following the war. It was felt that the type of people attracted to public housing would be detrimental to the North Portland Peninsula neighborhoods after the war. Some left the housing projects and integrated into the city, but many remained in what was the only housing they could find.
With the Vanport flood 1848 there was an immediate need to house the over 18,500 Vanport residents who were left homeless. HAP was faced with an emergency situation second only to the housing crisis during World War II. A special advisory committee had the task of finding housing for the displaced residents, and asked for volunteers to take in the victims. Temporary housing was established using $4 million emergency federal funds for trailer housing. McLaughlin Heights in Vancouver, Washington, which had been the second largest housing project in the United States during WWII, opened "Trailer Terrace.” It provided 100 for streamlined trailers and would soon have room for another 388.
Gradually most of these temporary housing sites were torn down, and or relocated to other places in the city. The land was reallocated for industrial and other civic uses. Vanport was located where now we have the Portland International Raceway and Heron Lakes Golf Course. Some of the building materials were used in construction throughout the city. The church we attended in Gresham was built with Vanport materials. Hidden amongst the Portland area are landscapes of forgotten pasts and treasured memories that once were the housing projects of the defense workers.
 Oregon State Archives. “Oregon History: World War II.” Oregon Blue Book (http://bluebook.state.or.us/cultural/history/history26.htm, : 2008).
2 “Kaiser shipyard in Vancouver launches its first escort aircraft carrier on April 5, 1943.” HistoryLink.org (http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=5266, HistoryLink.org. : 2008). Free online encyclopedia of Washington state history.
3 “Vanport (1942-1948).” Blackpast.org (http://www.blackpast.org/?q=aaw/vanport-1942-1948 : 2008).
4 “Kaiser Shipyards.” Wikipedia.org (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaiser_Shipyards : 2009).
5 “Portland Waterfront 1940 through 1979.” (http://www.portlandwaterfront.org/1940_1979.html : 2009)
6 “Nightshift Arrives Portland Shipbuilding.” The Oregon History Project, Oregon Historical Society (http://www.ohs.org/education/oregonhistory/historical_records/dspDocument.cfm?doc_ID=000D77A5-C7AD-1E52-BEFF80B05272FE9F : 2008).
7 “Liberty Ship Memorial Park.” (http://www.oakgrovedesigns.net/homepage/libships: 2008). Portland, Oregon, “Here on the bank of the Willamette River, which flows into the mighty Columbia, the Naito family created this maritime park dedicated to the Liberty Ships and to the U S Merchant Mariners.”
8 “A History of the Housing Authority of Portland,” HAP -About Us - Glimpses From the Past, (http://www.hapdx.org/about/glimpses.html : 2009).
9 The Housing Authority of Portland, Oregon (HAP) (http://www.realestatezing.com/usa/cities/portland/housing-authority.html : 2008).
10 Murdock, Rose M., et al. "How Did the YWCA of Portland Respond to the Social Challenges Posed by World War II?" Women and Social Movement 1600 – 2000, Center for the Historical Study of Women and Gender at SUNY Binghamton and Alexander Street Press. (http://womhist.alexanderstreet.com/portywca/war/worldwar.htm : 2008).
11 “The Vanport Flood & Racial Change in Portland”, Oregon Historical Society (http://www.ohs.org/education/oregonhistory/learning_center/dspResource.cfm?resource_ID=000BC26B-EE5A-1E47-AE5A80B05272FE9F : 2008).
12 Smith, Marie B., “Human Resources Management and Finances,” Marie B. Smith 1898-1991 (http://www.portlandonline.com/omf/index.cfm?a=150802&c=44053 : 2009).
13 “A Matter of Color: African Americans Face Discrimination.” Oregon State Archives (http://www.sos.state.or.us/archives/exhibits/ww2/life/minority.htm : 2008). See aerial view of just a portion of the massive Vanport housing project and article Housing in the Portland area.
14 “A History of the Housing Authority of Portland.”
15 “A History of the Housing Authority of Portland.”
16“Columbia Villa (New Columbia),” The Oregon Encyclopedia, (http://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/entry/view/columbia_villa_new_columbia_/ :2009).
17 Backgrounder for New Columbia built 2006, Housing Authority of Portland, (http://www.hapdx.org/newsroom/pdfs/NR042105bgd.pdf : 2008).
18 “A History of the Housing Authority of Portland.”
19 “A History of the Housing Authority of Portland.”
20 Dibling, Karen, et al. “Guild's Lake Industrial District: The Process of Change over Time.” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 107, No. 1, Spring 2006; Oregon History Collective (http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ohq/107.1/dibling.html : 2008).
21 “A History of the Housing Authority of Portland.”
22 “A History of the Housing Authority of Portland.”
23 “A History of the Housing Authority of Portland.”
24 “A History of the Housing Authority of Portland.”
25 Email from Jim Cole, 24 December 2008, to Susan LeBlanc.
26 Email from Jim Cole, 26 December 2008, to Susan LeBlanc.
27 “A History of the Housing Authority of Portland.”
28 “A History of the Housing Authority of Portland.”
29 Smith, Marie B.
30 MacColl, E. Kimbark, The Growth of a City, Power and Politics in Portland, Oregon 1915 to 1950, The Georgian Press, 1979, p. 579, Genealogical Forum of Oregon, 979.5 M961, P852, History. Pages 571 to 602 cover the time period of the defense housing projects.
31 “A Matter of Color: African Americans Face Discrimination.”
32 “A Matter of Color: African Americans Face Discrimination.”
33 “A Matter of Color: African Americans Face Discrimination.”
34 “Teaching American History Project, Completed Curricula.” College of Urban Affairs, Portland State University (http://www.upa.pdx.edu/IMS/currentprojects/TAHv3/TAH1_Units/TAH1_Curricula.html : 2008). Includes a power point presentation on the Vanport Project.
35 Davis, Audrey J. “The African-American Oregon Trail: A Look at the Migration of African-Americans to Oregon and How They Were Treated.” Paper, 27 November 2001. College of Education & Human Ecology, The Ohio State University (http://www.coe.ohiostate.edu/beverlygordon/863%20Projects/2001%20863%20projects/Davis.htm D : 2008).
36 “Celebration marks completion of Vanport city”, Portland Oregonian, Thursday, August 12, 1943 (http://www.ccrh.org/comm/slough/primary/vpcity.htm, Courtesy of the Portland Oregonian, Thursday, August 12, 1943 : 2009).
37 “Portland Waterfront 1940 through 1979.”
38 “Teaching American History Project, Completed Curricula.”
39 MacColl, E. Kimbark.
40 “With Mother at the Factory...Oregon's Child Care Challenges.” Oregon State Archives (http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/exhibits/ww2/services/child.htm : 2008).
41 “Celebration marks completion of Vanport city.”
42 “A Place of Their Own: Civilian Housing and Rent Control.” Oregon State Archives (http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/exhibits/ww2/services/house.htm : 2008).
43 Auditors Office, City of Portland, Portland Historical Timeline (http://www.portlandonline.com/auditor/index.cfm?c=27408&a=11038 :2009).
44 “Columbia Villa (New Columbia).”
45 Stroud, Ellen, Troubled Waters in Ecotopia: Environmental Racism in Portland, Oregon, EBSCO
(http://enviro.lclark.edu:8002/servlet/SBReadResourceServlet?rid=1141854451269_1726668621_752 : 2009).
46 “A History of the Housing Authority of Portland.”
47 Lansing, Jewell, Portland People, Politics, and Power 1851-2001, Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, 2003, p. 352.
“America’s Great Depression : Timeline.” (http://www.amatecon.com/gd/gdtimeline.html : 2008).
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(http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/timeline/ww2time.htm : 2008).