Etude: New Voices in Literary Nonfiction
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City of Strangers

It was growth
for the greater good

by Jeremy Ohmes
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Vera Erickson gazed out the living room windows of her tiny new home and sighed. It was March of 1943, and before her stretched a half-finished city jutting out of a sea of gray Oregon mud. Rows and rows of identical two-story, gray-green buildings dotted the low-lying mire, looking like drab wooden boxes that had been shoved up from below the earth. Hard-hatted construction workers, many of them women, hammered and sawed while tractors, trucks, bulldozers and cranes furrowed through the swampy landscape, splattering mud in every direction. Cars splashed into log-defined parking lots, their occupants stiffly climbing out to untie suitcases and chairs and carry them into their new homes. Buses transported droves of bleary-eyed workers to the shipyards outside of town. A seasoned family toted a two-by-four through a construction area, using it to bridge the countless puddles. Like many of the nascent city’s first residents, the family was making due. They looked past the mud, the monotonous architecture and the minor inconveniences. To many, it didn’t matter. There was a war going on, there was war work to be done, and there was finally available housing in a town where there had been little. Aesthetics were an afterthought; the blueprints were basic.

This new city’s sole purpose was to house the workers who could help America win the war. It was built for adults, and it was designed to channel their energy into round-the-clock shipbuilding.  As Vera looked across this fledgling landscape, she tried to see her new surroundings in this utilitarian light, but this was her family’s new home. Her four-year-old daughter would grow up here. She saw lots of other children who would come of age here, too. She saw families that would make up the fabric of this new city’s life. But she mostly saw a city with nothing certain on the horizon. In fact, she couldn’t even see the horizon — it was blocked by 20-foot dikes on all sides. Beyond the southern embankment bustled Portland, much of its citizenry misunderstanding and maligning its new neighbor. And over the northern levee roared the Columbia River, ready and waiting to send this emerging city called Vanport back to the swampy flatland from which it had risen.  

Many of Vanport’s residents were bewildered by the location and layout of the city. It was situated on the outskirts of Portland in a sodden no-man’s land between Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington — hence the name Vanport. It was edged by switch lines and railroad tracks that ran to packing plants and factories. It was accessible by only one road, Denver Avenue, to the east. It had none of the beauty that the Northwest was famous for — the vistas of snow-capped Mount St. Helens and Hood, the fir-peppered skylines, the verdant panoramas. Even the design and designations were uninspired — an endless repetition of drab, cookie-cutter buildings that were simply numbered Recreation Building No. 1, Nursery No. 2, School No. 3. In an interview with the Oregonian, one resident, a welder from Minnesota, couldn’t categorize Vanport under the heading of city or country. He said that it made him feel as if he were living in “a woods without trees,”  a “countrified city.” Even though many people didn’t know what to call Vanport, its creator knew exactly what it was — a war project, born of necessity as Portland became the center of the shipbuilding boom during World War II.

Henry J. Kaiser held the vision for Vanport. The self-made shipbuilding industrialist not only created the wartime housing project, he also created the need for it. Within one year, from 1941 to 1942, Kaiser built three huge shipyards within or near Portland: Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation on the Willamette River two miles south of its confluence with the Columbia; Swan Island, upriver toward downtown Portland; and the Vancouver, Washington yard, situated on the Columbia. Swan Island built T-2 tankers while the other two produced the famous Liberty ships. These ships, contracted by the U.S. Maritime Commission, were cheap, quick to build and so plain their design would earn them the nickname “Ugly Ducklings.”

Kaiser’s Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation launched the area’s first Liberty ship, the Star of Oregon, on September 27, 1941, and the U.S. Maritime Commission rewarded him with more shipbuilding contracts. With the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the United States entry into the war, the federal government increased ship production, and Oregon Shipbuilding quickly became the nation’s leader in the production of Liberty ships. By September 1942, with all three Kaiser shipyards in full production, 76 ships had been completed with construction time averaging a ship per month.  One, the Joseph N. Teal, was built in a record 14 days.  FDR came to Portland to witness its launching.  Kaiser had single-handedly transformed the City of Roses into the City of Ships.

With production came jobs, thousands of jobs, and Kaiser needed as many workers as he could find. He called on the unemployed around the Pacific Northwest. He emptied the rural counties of Oregon and Washington.  He recruited workers from construction jobs, orchards, fish hatcheries, lumber camps and paper mills. Most were white and spoke in familiar accents. Then he started recruiting across the rest of the United States. He ran help-wanted ads in 11 states and attempted to recruit 20,000 workers in New York City. He chartered 17-car “Kaiser Special” trains to bring workers from the Midwest, East and South. He exhorted people in the name of patriotism, and, more practically, appealed to their pocketbooks with high wages — 88 cents per hour for laborers to $1.20 per hour for journeymen — significantly more than the rest of the country’s average wage of 40 cents per hour. Soon, cars of all vintages, groaning under the loads of families and high-piled trailers, rolled in from Nebraska and Minnesota and all points south, east and west. Trainloads of families with Brooklyn and Dixie accents arrived, along with separate carloads of black recruits, mainly from the South.