They paved a pair of sites and put up a parking lot.
Which turned out to be a pretty good move.
When the U.S. Army covered some of its Vancouver Barracks property with gravel and asphalt about 30 years ago, it preserved a lot of below-ground history.
Now students have peeled back some of that blacktop and are uncovering the remnants of Hudson's Bay Company-era homes.
If you go
• The field school site is open to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays through July 28. It also will be open Aug. 8 through Sept. 1 on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays during a dig with the Oregon Archaeological Society.
• Children 8 to 12 can get an introduction to archaeology at five summer Kid Digs. The Saturday sessions are July 28, Aug. 4, Aug. 18, Aug. 25 and Sept. 1, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Children can take part in a mock dig and map their artifact finds with the help of park staff and volunteers. Each dig is limited to 20 children. They can sign up on the morning of the dig at the Fort Vancouver stockade entrance; it is free, but entrance fees to the fort apply to those 16 and older.
"Cool," described Rozalyn Crews as she examined the side of an excavation on the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.
Crews was doing a profile — "It's a technical sketch," she said — of the trench wall. At this depth, it amounted to a seven-layer sandwich of history, with each deposit representing a different era or a significant event, including a flood in 1894.
"The fourth layer is where the Hudson's Bay Company begins," said Crews, a graduate of New College of Florida.
Crews is here for Fort Vancouver's annual field school, which provides college students with hands-on experience in archaeology.
The 2012 field school also is giving the public a chance to see a piece of Vancouver that's been off limits for more than 160 years.
The National Park Service recently acquired the South Barracks dig site (as well as the East Barracks) from the U.S. Army, which had taken it over from the Hudson's Bay Company.
This is the first time the public has been able to see "Vancouver's first neighborhood" since the mid-1800s, said Doug Wilson, National Park Service archaeologist at Fort Vancouver.
"Prior to this, it was a closed area of the military base," said Wilson, who is an adjunct associate professor at Portland State University. Washington State University Vancouver also is a partner in the summer session.
The field school can be reached via the trail to the Vancouver Land Bridge, just east of the reconstructed workers' village.
The field school is digging at two locations where the remnants of three houses illustrate the diversity of Vancouver in the Hudson's Bay era.
At one of the spots, they are excavating the home of "Little Proulx" (pronounced "Prew"), who lived here in the 1840s. The French Canadian was married to a Chinook Indian woman named Catherine.
An excavation a bit closer to downtown Vancouver marks the homesite of William Kaulehelehe, perhaps the most famous of the native Hawaiians who worked at Fort Vancouver.
They represented just a few of the cultures, tribes and nationalities that were part of the workforce.
Living in harmony
"It was an interesting fusion," said Sarah Cloninger, a Portland resident who is participating in the field school. "I wish we could know about their music."
The students have come across more durable remnants of the villagers among the rocks and dirt.
"That's what's great about clay floors: If something doesn't get swept up right away, it gets ground into the clay," Cloninger said.
At one point, Cloninger displayed a tiny fragment of pottery in her palm. The delicate blue pattern indicated it was more likely to have been made in England than in China, she explained.
If you closely at the pattern, you see the equivalent of the pixels that make up today's digital images, she said. That was the result of an English process that transferred the color to the pottery; Chinese pottery makers didn't use that process.
Other recently discovered artifacts include rusted nails and glass shards.
While some of the students were excavating the homesites, others were working in a nearby archaeology lab set up in one of the vacated South Barracks buildings. They had carefully cleaned some of the finds, including a belt buckle, fragments of cartridge cases and a uniform button designed for the army of King Cristophe of Haiti.
The brick maintenance center, labeled Building 405, that houses their lab could eventually play a big part in telling the story of Fort Vancouver. It is slated to become a museum, Wilson said, with exhibits and classrooms.