Portland State University has been emboldening students and challenging the status quo in Portland for 75 years. From our founding to serve veterans home from World War II, we have been committed to meeting the needs of individual students and society as a whole.
We first opened in 1946 as the Vanport Extension Center for 220 students in Vanport, a city built to house wartime shipyard workers. After surviving a devastating flood in 1948, we moved three times before finding our permanent home in 1952 in the heart of downtown Portland, Oregon.
Since then, we have grown into Oregon’s most diverse urban public research university with 26,000 students and more than 200 degree programs.
Visit the PSU Library’s University Archives for more photos and history.
Beginnings: "We are starting from nothing" 1946
When World War II ended in 1945, the surge of returning veterans triggered demand for greater opportunities for higher education in Portland. The result was the Vanport Extension Center, which opened its doors in the summer of 1946 offering two years of college study.
Stephen Epler, Portland State’s founder, found the location and assembled facilities, faculty, and staff in only three months to open the Vanport Extension Center. "As you know,” he wrote to one of the first professors, “we are starting from nothing,"
Vanport City was established in 1942 and lasted only six years. It was a hastily constructed public housing project, built by wartime industrialist Henry J. Kaiser to meet the housing needs of World War II workers at the shipyards in Portland and Vancouver, Washington.
This temporary city was officially named Vanport because of its central location between Portland and Vancouver. The city was built on 650 acres of Columbia River floodplain, near the current site of Delta Park, Portland International Raceway, and Heron Lakes Golf Course.
Many returning veterans had married after the war and started families. Recognizing the special needs of the targeted student body, the availability of family housing as well as other family-related resources were a strong focus for Vanport's outreach and promotion.
After shipyard workers left Vanport following World War II, the city gained a new purpose with the establishment of a temporary college. Officially designated Vanport Extension Center, the school's primary purpose was to educate servicemen and women returning from the war.
At the end of World War II, military veterans flooded back to the United States armed with the GI Bill. But veterans returning to Portland faced a dilemma: There was no four-year public institution of higher education in the city. The solution was Vanport Extension Center.
Housed in begged-and-borrowed classrooms in Vanport City, the school was overcrowded and understaffed from day one. As early as December 1946, the student newspaper published a letter proposing a permanent institution.
The state board president, Edgar W. Smith, foresaw continued veteran growth and promised students that as long as enrollment kept above 1,000, the school was safe for another year. However, the future course of this "temporary" extension center was far from certain.
The Memorial Day Flood of 1948
"Remember: Dikes are safe at present. You will be warned if necessary. You will have time to leave. Don't get excited." Thus read a bulletin to Vanport City residents from the Housing Authority of Portland on May 30, 1948.
In spite of repeated assurances from the authorities, the Columbia River broke through the dike protecting the city on the soggy afternoon of Sunday, May 30, the same day the Housing Authority issued its reassuring bulletin.
A 10-foot wall of water rushed in, and within two hours, the homes and possessions of many students and families, as well as the Extension Center buildings, were under several feet of water.
Vanport City was destroyed, and the dreams of a permanent college appeared to be lost.
The road to college status was filled with political potholes. After the flood, Chancellor Paul C. Packer suggested that the destruction of the facilities and most of the student housing made this “a good time to close the facility.”
After the flood 1949
After the flood, Epler and his colleagues scrambled to keep the center alive. Portland Public Schools offered the use of Grant High School in northeast Portland for the 1948 summer session. There was a much larger problem to solve: finding a location for the coming fall. The federal government came to the rescue. Space for the new campus was found in North Portland in buildings formerly occupied by the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation. The new campus soon came to be known affectionately as "Oregon Ship."
Students named the Oregon shipyard building Vanport College, even though it was still officially Vanport Extension Center. Director Stephen Epler wryly observed, "We are fortunate in having probably the largest single college parking lot in the nation and perhaps the world."
During this uncertain time, the masthead of the student paper, Vanguard, began to appear with the subhead "The College That Wouldn't Die," inspired by a national story in the Christian Science Monitor about Vanport's post-flood success. The school's commitment and fighting spirit furthered its growth at Oregon Ship from 1948 to 1952.
On April 15, 1949, Governor Douglas McKay authorized $875,000 to purchase the former Lincoln High School building on the Park Blocks as a permanent home for the Portland State Extension Center. At the time, Portland was the largest metropolitan area in the United States without a public four-year college. After extensive repairs following its purchase in 1949, the former Lincoln High building was rechristened Old Main in 1952.
Finding a home in downtown Portland 1952
Lincoln Hall, first dubbed Old Main, is now home to the PSU’s College of the Arts. It was built in 1911 in a classical revival style with high Corinthian columns and balcony projections to the South Park Blocks side. The auditorium and stage were remodeled in 1975, and an extensive restoration was completed in 2010.
Although many students and community members campaigned for the establishment of a four-year public college in Portland, the post-war Baby Boom also played an important role. With the flood of veterans back from the war and starting families, educational leaders realized that, by the mid-1950s, there would be a critical shortage of qualified teachers.
It had been nearly nine years since the first class opened its "temporary" doors in Vanport City. Students and faculty celebrated with a parade from Old Main through downtown Portland and back. Students were elated that they no longer needed to transfer to other state institutions to obtain a bachelor's degree. State teacher accreditation for Portland State quickly followed to meet the critical need for public school teachers. As a result, teacher education students provided a majority of the first graduating class of 1956.