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A family from California surprised the staff at the Penn Dixie Paleontological and Outdoor Education Center in Hamburg this summer when they said they might visit Niagara Falls, if they had time.

The family’s primary destination was the former quarry, and they had traveled across the country to search for 380 million-year-old fossils to dig up and take home.

“We actually came here for Penn Dixie,” they told Executive Director Jerry Bastedo. “We may do the falls as a side trip.”

The 54-acre site, well-known in Western New York, has arrived as a destination.

Much has changed since the quarry opened for fossil hunters in 1996, but the vast acres of shale filled with thousands of fossils has remained. They can be found just by looking down, or by chipping away at the shale. And if you see it and pick it up, you can keep it.

“We have an inexhaustible supply of fossils,” Bastedo said. “We will never, ever run out.”

All Penn Dixie asks is to have a photograph of the rarer ones.

Five shelters, including three overlooking wetlands, have been built, and there are portable toilets at the quarry. More than 3,000 feet of paved trails have also been built to accommodate wheelchairs and strollers.

Penn Dixie is in the midst of a campaign to raise money for an educational building, to be constructed off Jeffrey Boulevard. The 10,300-square-foot building will have a large meeting room, exhibit room, classrooms, gift shop, seismograph station, climatological station and “green” features.

“Once that happens, it will totally change the dynamics at the site,” Bastedo said.

They are limited on some activities without permanent restrooms, and astronomy programs could take place all winter if there was a place to get out of the cold.

Bastedo is the only full-time employee, but plans are being made to hire two others, to allow programming to continue throughout the year. The annual budget is around $200,000.

Fossil hunters came from 38 states and nine countries this year, and more than 100,000 people visited the quarry and attended Penn Dixie programs off-site. Penn Dixie has been ranked the No. 1 fossil park in the United States.

It has become a four-season attraction, with cross country skiing, bird watching and wildlife programs throughout the year. Its location away from city lights makes it perfect for astronomy.

Owned and operated by the Hamburg Natural History Society, it was founded to “protect and promote education about natural resources.”

And when you look down, “you don’t know what you’re going to find,” Bastedo said.

email: bobrien@buffnews.com