Last December, Beatrice Gilmore died at the age of 90. She left behind four children, eight grandchildren—and one of the most detailed accounts of surviving the 1948 Columbia River flood.
That deluge in minutes destroyed Vanport, at one time the second-largest city in Oregon and home to Black workers who arrived to work in World War II shipyards. The catastrophe on May 30, 1948, is being commemorated at the Vanport Mosaic Festival, which continues through June 7.
Born in Louisiana in 1931, Gilmore lived in Vanport with her parents and siblings. She was a high schooler when the rain-swollen Columbia burst through a railroad dike over Memorial Day weekend, filling the bowl where Heron Lakes Golf Course and Portland International Raceway sit today. Apartments floated off their foundations and cars rolled like bath toys. Gilmore, her family, and thousands of other Vanport residents grabbed a few belongings and fled for their lives. At least 15 people died.
Gilmore went on to be the first Black graduate of the Oregon Health & Science University’s School of Nursing. The following is an excerpt from a 2015 interview with her, recorded by Sommer Martin as part of the Vanport Mosaic Oral History Project, facilitated by story midwife Laura Lo Forti. This is one of over 60 interviews collected since 2014, and is part of the “Lost City, Living Memories: Vanport Through the Voices of Its Residents” archive.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
My name is Beatrice Leola Gilmore. I lived in Vanport from 1944 to 1948, when the flood came.
I’m originally from Louisiana. Tallulah, not very far from Vicksburg, Miss., across the river. Tallulah was a small town. Across the railroad tracks was the white population. And so, of course, we were on the other side.
It was easy to leave Louisiana. It was my father’s idea. During World War II, the word got down South about other states where people needed labor. He heard about the Kaiser shipyard. They had advertised that they needed help all over the United States. So he decided he would drive to Portland.
When we got to Portland, it was raining, and it seemed like it would never, ever stop. They had these houses—apartments, they called them. Three of us slept in one room, and my father and mother slept in another bedroom. So it was pretty close, but we got used to being there.
I went to Roosevelt High School. By that time, I understood the really harsh segregation that was present in Oregon. There were stores that had signs in the doors: “No Negro served here.” But I went in anyway. It was like: This is right across the street, I’m gonna go in and get what I want.
I spent a lot of my time figuring out of where I was gonna go—to either challenge the system, or just let things be. And so that was a big job for me in Portland.
We had been anticipating that it might be a flood, because they were watching the dikes. There were dikes all around. Vanport was built in low land, and it was a flood zone.
The Housing Department was making announcements about what the situation was. The day of the flood, the Housing Department had put notice under everybody’s door that it looked like the dikes were going to hold, and everybody could feel secure. We accepted that.
The day of the flood? It was Memorial Day, a holiday. I was in the theater with a bunch of other kids, watching a movie. All of the sudden, one kid came in, ran up to the front, and said, “The dike broke!” Everybody ran out of the theater.
We lived within running distance of the theater, and I ran to our house. Tried to put some things together so we could get all in the car to get out. I remember my brother wanted to get his holster that had his little toy guns in them, and I remember my mother wanted to bring her sewing machine. I don’t know how she stacked it in the car.
We got in the car and we were going up the hill. As the water was coming, we were driving as fast as we could. People were running and screaming, trying to keep up with their families and “where’s my kid?” and everybody was taking care of each other. I looked back and I saw a wall of water behind the car and I realized how close we were to being washed away.
Everybody was helping everybody get up the hill. There were some people that didn’t make it. I remember I stood up with a whole crowd of people, looking at the flood just wash the housing units up and knowing that our possessions were gone. I think I ended up in the gymnasium of Jefferson High School, but I’m not sure.
I don’t know if we ever fully recovered. It was so traumatic.
We went to Guild’s Lake, which was a very muddy, wet part of town. We had two trailers. My mother and father were in one. I didn’t even know that much about what a trailer was. But they parked the trailers and it was low land. I remember there was just mud.
My father was still working at the shipyard. Then my father found a house. I don’t know how he did it. But we moved onto Rodney Street, and that then was the end of our migration from this to that to the other. So I finished high school there.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it really did throw me back to the flood, and I knew how helpless those people felt. [pause] I think that was the first time I cried about what had happened to me. I thought: Here this many years have passed, and we are not taking care of them any better than they took care of people in Vanport. I felt that as a country we could have done better. They were in low land like we were. I didn’t as a child understand that, and I don’t know if they understood it either.
In the years to come, I’d like to for people to remember that Vanport was an accidental experiment, because people of all nationalities were brought together, and they had things that they had to learn about each other, things that they needed to accept about each other. But the focus was that we were going to save America by building the ships. And they were proud to be able to build the ships.
GO: The Vanport Mosaic Festival continues through Tuesday, June 7. Events include a bike tour of the Columbia River levees at 5:30 pm Thursday, June 2. For more information, visit vanportmosaic.org.