Off beat: Getting a read on Fort’s early history

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Old newspapers can be a handy research tool. They were so handy in one local project that a few people probably thought it was unfair.

Those people are the archaeologists who have to painstakingly tease away soil as they excavate a historic site. They carefully collect and document each obscure artifact. Eventually, they can match layers of soil with time periods as they figuratively turn back the pages of history.

Then there are the archaeologists who can pinpoint a deposit’s historical era by just reading a newspaper. That happened at a dig on the edges of downtown Vancouver, said Bob Cromwell, a National Park Service archaeologist.News you can use

News you can use

Cromwell, who’s based at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, told the story recently at Vancouver’s Old Apple Tree. The landscape in the area has changed significantly since the tree was planted more than 180 years ago just north of the Columbia River, Cromwell noted.

“There used to be a pond, just to the east,” Cromwell said. “It connected the river with the Hudson’s Bay village.”

When ships tied up along the river were unloaded, their cargo often was transferred to canoes manned by Hudson’s Bay employees, Cromwell said.

“The pond was like a driveway to the village.”

After the Fort Vancouver site changed hands, the U.S. Army found a new use for the pond.

“It became the Vancouver Barracks’ primary garbage dump,” Cromwell said. “They completely filled it in.”

Highway traffic now travels over part of the filled-in pond. But before the highway construction could begin, archaeologists had a chance to do some digging of their own.

“It was a massive archaeological site,” Cromwell said. “It was 15 feet of stratified garbage. And they were able to date the layers by looking at the newspapers they found. The stuff didn’t rot.

“It was almost cheating.”

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story, or just tell a story.