Weird NJ: All aboard, on track for Northlandz
There’s a place in New Jersey where mountain gorges descend sharply into turbulent roiling rivers. Through these rocky ravines train tracks cling precariously to the steeply pitched mountainsides.
A locomotive passes on its daily rounds on the gravity defying line, winding its way through the treacherous terrain, then disappears into the inky blackness of a narrow tunnel into a mountain. When it emerges, it continues to follow its tracks through high remote passes that offer spectacular vistas of small bustling towns and major metropolitan cityscapes alike. Along its route it will cross mighty waterways and traverse dizzying chasms over expansive, remarkably complex bridge structures. And it will make the entire journey through this majestic scenic landscape without ever leaving the confines of a single Hunterdon County building known as Norhtlandz.
Northlandz, located on Route 202 in Raritan Township, is a fantastical environment of imaginative topography that makes up the world’s largest model train set.
The attraction is the brainchild and lifework of a man named Bruce Williams Zaccagnino, or simply Mr. Williams, who, along with his wife Jean, have created a place unlike any other on Earth. The scale model railroad features over 100 trains, which travel on more than 8 miles of track in the 52,000 square foot building. There are 5,000 tiny buildings; rail yards, depots, stations, turntables, and roundhouses. There are 500,000 miniature trees and 400 bridges and trestles made from innumerable tiny pieces of wood, metal and plastic.
The dream of the Great American Railway at Northlandz began over 40 years ago as the Williams’ first home was being built in 1972. Mr. Williams was a highly successful war and strategy computer game designer by day, with such well-known titles as “Perfect General” and “Solitaire’s Journey” to his credit, which he published through his own independent software company.
During the evenings Mr. Williams would escape to the basement and began erecting scenes for his passion for model railroads. This was the beginning of a labor of love that would eventually become Northlandz.
In 1977, after Mr. Williams completed a fourth addition to the basement of his Flemington home, he was persuaded by friends to host an annual train show for a local charity. The weekend show was soon attracting 1,500 visitors, so in 1996 Williams began opening Northlandz on a daily basis.
When Weird NJ visited Northlandz we were greeted by a smiling older gentleman dressed in khaki pants and wide brimmed hat reminiscent of the one worn by Indiana Jones in the “Raiders of the Lost Arc” movies. This was in fact the creator of Northandz, Mr. Williams himself, who stood in the ticket booth and accepted our admittance.According to the brochure, at its busiest Northlandz says that it had 2,100 visitors in a single day.
When you begin your journey through Northlandz you travel down walkways that lead you around the gigantic exhibits — some so big that visitors are encouraged to bring binoculars so that they can see details on the far side of the displays. You are immediately taken aback by the intricate features of every diorama and it can be very tempting to view each one until you’re satisfied that you have taken it all in.
About 20 minutes into the expedition the common person with only a passing interest in railroads might start to think, “This is certainly incredible, but perhaps I’ve seen enough trains for one day.” Well, dear reader, the journey through Northlandz is not unlike the journey of life itself: It only goes in one direction and there is NO TURNING BACK, as signs posted along the route remind you intermittently. It’s a one-ride with no return trip tickets.
After about a half hour into the tour all but the most diehard trainspotting foamers have stepped up their walking pace. It is right about at this point that you will notice the marker declaring that you are now 25 percent of the way through. This means that the entire tour of Northlandz takes an estimated two hours to complete. The visitor’s walkway is actually about one mile long in total.
Even after you start to think that you’ve see enough complicated multi-level train trestles crisscrossing each other willy-nilly at various levels, there are still little surprises that continue to catch your eye along the way, like the little comedic signs posted on some of the displays. One tells the story of the “World’s Tallest Outhouse,” which is perched on spindly stills at the top of a cliff overhanging the open pit of a rock quarry. Another interesting feature is the control room with its massive panel of knobs, buttons, dials and lighted gauges, that keeps this whole network of rail traffic running all day every day.
At one point an entire city of skyscrapers rises up to a height of about 10 feet before your eyes. There are buildings and people and cars — but oddly enough, not a single train to be seen anywhere! We wouldn’t be surprised though if there was a vast unseen subway system running beneath the streets.
The last stop on the Northlandz tour, as with any commercial attraction, is the gift shop, where Mr. Williams cheerfully stands waiting to ring up your purchase of train-oriented souvenirs. But there’s still one final adventure to be had before the Northlandz experience is complete. Visitors are invited to step outside where, at a rail station, an actual train awaits on the tracks to take you for a ride. It’s small-scale replica of a 1890s narrow gauge steam train.
The sheer magnitude and scope of Northlandz alone make it a modern marvel of creative accomplishment. Add to that the fact that it was crafted single-handedly by one dedicated individual, and it would seem an almost supernatural feat. Not one to self aggrandize, Mr. Williams humbly says of it, “This is what we do. If you can create your own enthusiasm, you can do anything. If you maintain that enthusiasm you can do it well.” And he has done very well indeed. Get yourself a ticket and go ride the rails.
The preceding article is an excerpt from Weird NJ magazine, “Your Travel Guide to New Jersey’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets,” which is available on newsstands throughout the state and on the web at www.WeirdNJ.com.
IF YOU GO
Northlandz is located at 495 US 202 in Flemington
It is open every day except Tuesdays