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DIGGING INTO THE PAST AT HAMBURG QUARRY

The simple wooden structure just beyond a gated fence in the Town of Hamburg doesn't look much like a time machine, but it is. One side offers the familiar feel of a wooded landscape shading swiftly into suburbia, but step through the portal and you're deep into the past.

Gouged into the gravels and shales beneath soils left by a long-gone Ice Age, the former Penn Dixie Cement Co. quarry quietly has been building a national and international reputation as a place to shed hundreds of millions of years. Just a stone's throw or two from Ford's Woodlawn Stamping Plant, the North Street site offers more than 40,000 visitors a year a chance to explore prehistory and discover fossils twice as old as the dinosaurs.

"We have members in 24 states," notes Jerold C. Bastedo of the Hamburg Natural History Society, which runs the site. "We have a French member who was out at the sight several times this year. We have members in Japan and England, and we've had visitors from Italy, Germany, Ecuador and Australia. This year we had visitors from New Zealand and Spain."

The main attractions at the quarry site are creatures that ruled the Earth some 380 million years ago, when what is now Western New York was a tropical sea some 20 to 30 degrees south of the equator. Visitors can dig through an ancient sea floor that was compressed long ago from mud into stone, and unearth such ancient swimmers, crawlers and shelled creatures as trilobites and brachiopods.

The shales and gravels are rich with fossils. Best of all -- especially for schoolchildren more used to "look but don't touch" field trips -- visitors get to keep the ancient creatures they find.

"I don't think we'll ever run out of fossils," Bastedo tells those unfamiliar with the deeply layered deposits at the site. "It's an inexhaustible supply."

The moonscape-like quality of the site, a gash of gray stones and mud surrounded by increasingly developed residential and industrial neighborhoods, belies its increasing popularity. There were about 30,000 visitors in 1999 and 40,000 last year. This year's season tally isn't yet complete, but Bastedo expects about a 30 percent increase.

And that has triggered plans for an expansion of services. There are now two simple shelters, but the natural history society dreams of nature trails and a new visitor center, with exhibit and classroom space as well as amenities for day-long digging expeditions or night-long star-gazing outings at the site.

Hamburg Rep. Jack Quinn backs that idea, and is seeking a $50,000 federal grant to further the ambitious $1.75 million project. "It's definitely worthwhile," he said.

The society also wants to expand access for people in wheelchairs. Local grant-making organizations have been asked to consider funding a system of nature trails to help do that and allow for low-impact tours of the wetland habitats. Walkways also would improve access to the fossil zones across areas that quickly turn muddy when it rains.

Few amateur geologists or fossil collectors would argue about the value of the expanding educational programs at the site. The Hamburg group's efforts to acquire and preserve the old quarry drew widespread attention among enthusiasts, who worry about gaining access to privately owned lands from owners concerned about the scars left by digging.

It also doesn't hurt that the local shales, both at the Penn-Dixie site and nearby Eighteen Mile Creek, long have been recognized worldwide as prime sites for some species of trilobites -- small, three-lobed, armored creatures that were among the planet's dominant life forms for millions of years longer than humans have ruled the earth.

Quarry operations in the 1960s scraped about 10 feet of shale from the surface of the 57-acre site, and weather soon began unveiling fossils from the Devonian era. That drew museum paleontologists and local collectors alike in the 1970s, but decades of ownership changes also turned the property into a hot spot for unauthorized youth parties, trash dumping, target shooting and all-terrain vehicle driving.

In the 1990s plans were made to preserve the property for educational uses, and in late 1995 the town bought the property. With the help of Councilman Mark Cavalcoli, a key supporter, the 2-year-old natural history society took ownership of 32.5 acres, including the quarry pit. While the rest of the site was used by the town's development agency for single-family housing, the naturalists hauled out five dumpsters of debris, more than 300 tires and the remnants of five abandoned cars, two boats, a motorcycle, a golf cart and a snowmobile.

The site now features two fossil pits, as well as ponds and wetland habitats, open during tours, special events and once-a-month "public days." Society volunteers also run astronomy and bird-watching programs, in addition to the fossil explorations.

This year, 1,400 visitors turned out for Earth Science Day activities at the Penn Dixie Paleontological and Outdoor Education Center, and the group also welcomes bus-tour visits by amateur geology groups from throughout the Northeast and as far south as Maryland.

"A lot of it is school groups, and we have a lot of Scout groups," Bastedo notes. "Some of them expect dinosaurs, but then they find these things and they learn they get to keep them, which most kids find simply astonishing."

Occasionally the club will use some heavy equipment to open a new area for prospecting, society board member Thomas R. Johnston noted. But mostly visitors are simply free to dig in one of the fossil areas when the site is open. A new set of explanatory signs installed nearby helps them determine for themselves just what secrets of the past they've turned up.

"We've had a lot of people come out, and it opens a whole new world and a whole new environment to them," Bastedo added. "It's sort of fun to watch their eyes light up."

More information

The Penn Dixie site is open from May through October; visits must be scheduled through the Hamburg Natural History Society, 627-4560. For more information, visit www.penndixie.org.