Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Bruce Zaccagnino has built a detailed microcosm of connected cities, complete with buildings, bridges, and trains.
For decades, Bruce Zaccagnino has been following the sound of his life’s calling: the clickety-clack of a miniature railroad.
Zaccagnino is the creator, owner, and maintainer of Northlandz, a hall of attractions in suburban New Jersey that houses what may be the country’s largest model railway—as well as a lavish auditorium, a doll museum, and an enormous pipe organ that Zaccagnino himself occasionally plays.
But the trains are Zaccagnino’s raison d’être, as a short documentary by Sylvain Labs, Greencard Pictures, and director Andrew Wilcox shows. Prior to Northlandz’s public opening in 1996, Zaccagnino spent four years planning and building the microcosm. Today, it comprises roughly nine miles of tracks, thousands of miniature buildings and urban streets, and hundreds of trestle bridges spanning mountainous landscapes. Scads of tiny trees, cars, and figurines inhabit swathes of custom-built urban grid. All told, the railroad-world spans 52,000 square feet.
“I don’t know why I did it,” he says in the film. “I just had to do it. I had no explanation. I’d wake up in the morning sometimes when I was constructing, or before I was constructing, and all of a sudden there’s a new idea. This is a whole new thing that comes into my head out of nowhere. Out of absolutely nowhere.”
The product of Zaccagnino’s creative drive is breathtaking. Forty-plus years after laying his first track, he still hasn’t quit building.
Watch the documentary, titled Some Kind of Quest, for an intimate portrait of an unusual artist, marching to the beat of his own train signal timer.