Plunging perspectives at Northlandz.
Plunging perspectives at Northlandz.

Northlandz

Field review by the editors.

Flemington, New Jersey

Northlandz revels in its excess. This self-proclaimed "world's largest miniature wonderland" appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, in late 1996 -- although creator Bruce Williams Zaccagnino had labored in secret for over four years to build it. Guinness World Records quickly certified Bruce's creation as the Largest Model Railroad on Earth.

Railways cross and converge over model rivers.
Railways cross and converge over model rivers.

"Mr. Bruce" -- which is how he's referred to in all Northlandz literature -- built an exhausting indoor world of extreme landscapes, with over eight miles of track, hundreds of bridges (made of millions of tiny pieces of wood), more than 4,000 custom buildings and a half-million tiny trees. Northlandz's massive substructure required enough lumber to build 42 large houses. Several hundred tons of plaster went into the construction of its mountains, which tower three stories high. The self-guided indoor walking tour of Northlandz takes hours and meanders over a mile -- another surprise for most visitors.

Mr. Bruce called Northlandz "The Great American Railway," although nowhere in America will you find these vistas. The topography suggests spectacular renderings of Middle Earth, or 1970s Roger Dean album covers for the band Yes, but nothing that you'd find in New Jersey or Nebraska. Towering cliffs and plunging gorges are everywhere; villages teeter on pinnacles of rock; wonky structures stand on spindly sticks, clinging to thousand-foot precipices. Tiny plastic cows graze on 75-degree hillsides; horse paddocks are surrounded by bottomless pits. Mortality among the tiny inhabitants of Northlandz must be tragically high.

Bruce Williams Zaccagnino in the early days, playing his organ.
Mr. Bruce in the early days, playing one of his theater organs.

Tunnels and bridges -- absurdly enormous, intricate bridges -- are everywhere, crossing each other on multiple levels (often above or beneath you) like freeway interchanges, growing ever more outlandish as the tour progresses. You find yourself wondering: why would people in a vertical world use the railroad, which can't operate on steep grades, for transportation?

Open pit mining in miniature.
Open pit mine in miniature.

Practicality, however, was never a concern for Mr. Bruce. He recognized the flaw of all other model train attractions: they're too chained to reality, too flat. Northlandz is all about imagination and vertigo. Mr. Bruce said that he created it as a work of art. The trains -- over 100 of them, dutifully chugging along cliffs, through tunnels, and across all of those bridges -- were simply a way to call attention to all the other stuff. He told us he had never ridden in a real train, which perhaps explains the astounding sights in Northlandz, completely untethered from the dull real world of mass transit.

Another river crossing vista.
Another river crossing vista.

For the observant, Northlandz offers much to discover: impossible factories and open pit mines, Indian pueblos, Roman aqueducts, a Civil War battle, the Golden Spike ceremony, an old-fashioned airliner crashed into a hillside (with none of its passengers injured). There are also little notations of comedy: the World's Tallest Outhouse, the World's Only Toothpick Farm, the Tomb of the Unknown Hobo, a miniature miniature golf course clinging to the side of a mountain. "Grandma's Pit" is a farmhouse atop a tiny pillar in the middle of a vast quarry. "Lytle Gurly Gulch" is a passenger train derailed off a bridge by an 18-month-old girl who stomped into the scenery in 1999. Mr. Bruce left the wreckage as it was and added tiny people climbing to safety up the sides of the train cars.

Towering 3-stories tall.
Mountains and bridges tower three stories high.

There are different diversions in Northlandz as well: hundreds of dolls (collected by Mrs. Bruce) in a 94-room doll mansion; an outdoor three-quarter-scale steam train that takes passengers on excursions through the woods; a concert hall with three theater organs on a stage that Mr. Bruce would play once every hour.

But time passed, and Mr. Bruce -- who was already in his fifties when he built Northlandz -- became increasingly unable to maintain his sprawling creation. Visitors began to complain that the miniature world was battered and dusty, that fewer and fewer trains were operating. Finally, in 2018, Mr. Bruce retired, closed the attraction, and sold the massive Northlandz building to Tariq Sohail, America's largest importer of Himalayan pink salt.

"Our real estate guy said, 'You can demolish what's inside and make it into a warehouse,'" Tariq told us. "But when we went inside, we had never seen anything like that in the world, and we'd traveled all over."

Tariq and his business partners were practical people, but Northlandz so impressed them -- even in its dark and run-down state -- that they changed their minds. "A warehouse, we could always buy somewhere else," Tariq said. "Nobody in our lifetime would ever be able to make something like this again."

Model of a city.
Skyscraper metropolis: one of the few places in Northlandz without a train.

Tariq spent 10 months and over $300,000 to restore Northlandz, cleaning off the cobwebs, patching and painting the damaged scenery, rewiring the trains, and adding LED lighting to showcase the landscapes. He hired a ten-person staff to keep the place running and in good repair. "There are too many normal people in the world," said Tariq. "You've got to be a little bit crazy to do something like this." He was referring to Mr. Bruce, but maybe also to himself.

Northlandz reopened to the public on September 26, 2019 (with a steeper admission price to match its vertical drama). The world's largest miniature wonderland is a wonder once again.

Northlandz

Address:
495 US-202, Flemington, NJ
Directions:
On the north side of US-202, two miles east of its intersection with NJ-31 in Flemington.
Hours:
W-M 10-6, closed Tu (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
908-782-4022
Admission:
Age 2-65 $30. Discounts on their website sometimes.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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