In the early ’70s, Bruce Williams Zaccagnino and his wife, Jean, bought a block of land in New Jersey and started designing a house together. It was a unique opportunity; throughout his life, Bruce had harboured a deep obsession with model trains, but never felt he had enough room to properly build the tracks he wanted. So, when he finally signed off on the blueprints for the building, he made sure it had a massive basement.
At first, this underground space was everything Bruce had dreamt of. But as the software developer devoted more and more time to his hobby, it became cramped. The intricate railways he was creating were pushing dangerously close to the walls. So, he decided to take action. He constructed another basement.
And then another one. And then two more. By the end, there was a winding labyrinth of tracks and trains that took more than 18 years to build. “My hobby just kind of got out of control,” he says. “I took it to the extreme.”
Zaccagnino’s creation was never intended as an attraction for the public. But, one day, a friend convinced him to open it up for a weekend. It was a huge success, and Zaccagnino had such a good time that he decided to do something drastic: he invested nearly all his money into buying another piece of land. On it, he constructed a building that contained the greatest model railway the world has ever seen. The place was open to the public all year round. Zaccagnino called it Northlandz. “Everyone thought I was stupid,” he says. “The only person who believed in me was my wife – she was with me 1000 per cent.”
Zaccagnino’s monument to the art of model building still stands today. It occupies around 16 acres and requires more than two hours to explore fully. There are 12 kilometres of track, 400 bridges, about half a million trees, around 3000 buildings and a group of fake mountains that reaches up to three and a half storeys high. You could build 40 houses out of the material he used.
Maintaining the place isn’t easy. Zaccagnino works there most days, dusting the miniature skyscrapers and canyons, and crafting new additions. He never complains, though. When he sees people enjoying his work, he can’t help but feel it’s worth it. “If you get good at something, you have to give it to the world,” he says. “The only way to be truly happy is to make others happy.”
Photographer: Brandon Pavan