Portland decades: the 1940s

Despite the hardships of extreme weather and World War II, the city experienced an economic boom, a dramatic population surge, and diversification as workers flocked to the shipyards.

A historic photo of the Council Crest Trolley coming down the hill in Portland, Oregon.

The 1940s marked the final hurrah for the Council Crest trolleys.

With abundant electricity flowing from the newly completed Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams, Portland’s wartime economy churned into overdrive in the 1940s. The city’s population exploded and diversified as many thousands of defense workers migrated to the area; tract housing in the suburbs, more easily accessible thanks to the increasing ubiquity of the automobile, met the new residents’ needs.

Pro tip: To explore more historic photos from the decade, check out The Oregonian’s “Portland Memories II: The 1940s.”

Population: 305,394

Mayors: Joseph K. Carson (1933-1940), Earl Riley (1941-1948), Dorothy McCullough Lee (1949-1952)

1940 — Construction of the new Portland-Columbia Airport (the current location of Portland International Airport) finishes. The monumental effort required dredging 4 million cubic yards of fill material to make the marshy riverside a viable location.

The first image shows a massive ship sliding out of the Kaiser shipyard in Vancouver, WA. The second image shows an aerial photo of the Kaiser shipyard at Swan Island in Portland.

Two other Kaiser shipyards operated out of Vancouver and Swan Island.

Photos by U.S. Navy and Edward Cochrane via Wikimedia Commons

1941 — Oregon Shipbuilding Company opens on the Willamette River, downstream from St. Johns. The PNW’s largest Kaiser shipyard built merchant ships for Great Britain, but it eventually pivoted to manufacturing cargo and combat vessels for the U.S. Maritime Commission.

1942 — Following President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, Japanese Americans in Portland and Oregon are rounded up, moved against their will, and imprisoned at the Portland Assembly Center, an internment camp at the current site of the Portland Expo Center.

1943 — Harbor Drive opens, routing US Route 99W alongside downtown Portland and cutting off pedestrian access to the Willamette River. On Thursday, Jan. 21, a winter storm drops 15.5 inches of snow on Portland in 24 hours, a record that still stands today.

1944 — A blaze ravages Iron Fireman Manufacturing Co. in the Brooklyn neighborhood, injuring at least five people and causing $2 million in damage (equivalent to $35,450,000 today).

1945 — Urban League of Portland is founded amid an education boom; Vanport Extension Center (now PSU) opens its doors and Portland Public Schools begins a campaign that created more than 25 new and replacement schools in 10 years.


Mayor Dorothy McCullough Lee and Commissioners William A. Bowes, Fred L. Peterson, and Ormond R. Bean are sworn into office in 1949.

Photo by Portland City Archives

1946 — Jack Murdoch and Howard Vollum sow the seeds of the “Silicon Forest” by starting an electronics store in Southeast Portland, which would become Tektronix (currently headquartered in Beaverton). Their innovations led to the first commercially successful oscilloscope.

1947 — After a 10-year hiatus, the Ryder Cup returns to Portland Golf Club where the US team overwhelmingly beats the British contingent 11-1.

1948 — The lives of more than 42,000 people are upended when a Memorial Day flood destroys the city of Vanport, prompting President Harry Truman to visit and witness the damage. Forest Park is dedicated.

1949 — Portland elects its first female mayor, Dorothy McCullough Lee. Lewis and Clark College and the University of Portland play a benefit football game for local firemen. An otherworldly scene unfolds beneath the Interstate Bridge, where ice floes ranging from 2 to 6 inches thick clog the entire width of the Columbia River.

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