Tag Archives: South Jersey
All Aboard! – Northlandz, Flemington, NJ
Sometimes JerseyMan lets me come up with my own assignments, so I got to visit Northlandz in Flemington, NJ … the Model Train Capital of the World! This article appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of JerseyMan; click here to see the PDF.
The Northlandz Railroad Museum in Flemington was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest model railroad. Bruce Williams Zaccagnino’s creation is now the beneficiary of new ownership, an expensive makeover, and finally, the marketing respect it richly deserves.
Julie Parker’s occupation was to tell people about businesses worth visiting in Flemington.
And she had never heard of Northlandz.
That’s roughly the equivalent of being in charge of Philadelphia tourism, and not being aware of Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the Art Museum, and the Reading Terminal Market.
It wasn’t Parker’s fault, though. The genius behind Northlandz is an excessively modest man, who cared more about creating his art than promoting it.
She fondly remembers meeting him.
“I was doing the Flemington Information Center. Somebody told me, you’ve got to go see Bruce Williams, he just opened this place called Northlandz. I said, okay, maybe I can promote him. I had a group of businesses that would pay me and I would promote them all over Flemington.
“He actually had me go through it, and I came out and I looked at him and I said, ‘Oh my God, you built this whole place yourself?’”
If that story is remarkable, it gets better. This phenomenal exhibit of a hobby taken to an unimaginable extreme was almost decimated.
Thankfully, the building fell into the right hands…businessmen with more enthusiasm for putting smiles on faces than for profit.
Tariq Sohail, one of the new owners, was equally shocked and amazed in his first visit to Northlandz. He was minding his own business looking for a storage warehouse, and came upon a large gray building off Route 202 that might work.
“We drove past it so many times. I never knew what it was. Our real estate guy said, if you don’t like what’s inside, you can always demolish it.”
As Sohail describes his reaction to seeing what was inside, Parker chuckles, as if fully appreciating the astonishment factor.
“We started going through the whole tour,” Sohail continues. “We were like, in our lifetime, nobody has ever built something like this. We’ve traveled throughout the world, we’ve never seen anything like this.
“So we decided to take a risk and invest into it and promote it.”
That they’ve done. Northlandz needed work, to be sure…read reviews from a few years ago and you’ll see a lot about the state of disrepair it was in. Sohail and his partners have thus far poured several hundred thousand dollars into cleaning it up, and the results are nothing short of remarkable.
“There are people that came three or four years ago and they say, we can’t believe the difference,” Parker says proudly.
The new ownership has a larger vision for Northlandz too…it includes shuttle buses from New York City, a hotel, a banquet hall, and much more. All revolving around a toy train set.
That said, it is one truly amazeballs train set.
Northlandz is, simply put for brevity, the world’s largest model railroad, according to the Guinness folks who are experts on such things. It spans over 45,000 square feet and 16 acres. The walkway just to go through it is over a mile.
To give you an idea of just how staggering its size, this observer had taken over a hundred pictures before reaching a sign that reads: “You are now 25% through Northlandz”.
Every moment is sheer model railroad wonderment. Huge displays filled with mountains and bridges, offering backdrops to bucolic still life of homes, factories, rivers, and neighborhoods. There’s “Iron Valley”, with its multiple iron bridges gracefully leading through mountain tunnels. There’s “Joycetown”, with churches, homes, and model trucks decorated with staples of American commerce like Kodak, Dollar Tree and Valvoline. There’s a fully detailed city mockup featuring an aircraft carrier. And a display of mountain life with busy railroads throughout that literally occupies three floors of the building. Tunnels? Northlandz features over four hundred of them.
On and on and on.
Any one of these displays could be the highlight of nearly any museum in the country. You could literally spend hours in one spot, watching a toy locomotive charmingly meander through a perfectly scaled-down neighborhood.
And this marvel was nearly all built by just one person.
Sohail estimates that Zaccagnino spent 17-19 hours daily, seven days a week, for close to four years building a miniature world. As one can imagine, he received little to no support from family members…as if spending eight hours a day and five days a week in a cubicle somehow makes more sense. According to Sohail, only Bruce’s wife Jean always supported the venture.
You could probably be forgiven for thinking your neighbor was crazy for devoting even sleeping hours to building a model railroad.
Then you see the finished work, and you realize crazy people are awesome.
“You won’t believe your eyes” is Northlandz’s slogan, and despite seeing it every day…Parker is currently the Northlandz Marketing and PR Director…she repeats those words herself often, with genuine passion that every employee shares.
“I just feel it’s magical,” she gushes. “How can somebody have conceived this? It’s incredible. You go through it and you start seeing all these little trains going in the little villages and the different themes and the different venues.”
“Everything is built by hand,” Sohail adds. “He told us one of the bridges that he built is 40 foot long, 23,000 small wood pieces, that he put together one by one by one by hand.”
Ask anyone working at Northlandz what the appeal of a huge model train set is and you’ll get a different answer.
Parker thinks it’s the glimpse of history.
“I think it goes back to the industrial revolution. Trains made our country great. They transported everything. Food, industry, it’s like the backbone of our economy. Buses, trains and cars, they’re what makes the economy tick.”
Sohail believes the appeal reaches us on multiple levels. He refers to young people who come to work at Northlandz and help with the layouts out of pure passion.
“Within the train layout, you have to have more than one skill. It’s architecture, it’s engineering, it’s electrical, it’s design, it’s scenery. Basically doing one hobby, you’re learning all different skills.”
Ken Vogel, a train technician, generously took time to point out multiple intricacies of Northlandz during this interview. He remembers his own days of building model trains, and bringing one of his fellow hobbyists to Northlandz for the first time.
“Bruce signed a box car that we brought here from my nephew. What I said to him at that time was, I know a lot of people that are remodelers who always wanted to build an empire and never did it. I said, you’re the only one that did.”
Sohail thinks the moving train gives life to a piece of art. “You’re looking at something beautiful going up and down, and all of a sudden the train comes.”
Worth putting over $300,000 into preserving? No question for Sohail. “Every time I come, it excites me as well, even when I own it. I see the people coming out of the place and I see how big the smiles on their faces and how happy they are to see it.
“That’s made me happy.”
Walking through the magical railroad empire that is Northlandz, one gets a sense of needing to be of advanced age to fully appreciate the endeavor. The longer you’ve spent on Planet Earth, the longer you’ve gone without witnessing anything like it.
But even this observer’s little ones can’t wait to go back.
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If You Go (And You Should)
If you are at least enough of a model train enthusiast to, say, put a little track under your Christmas tree each year, you have to visit Northlandz. In most any search for “largest model railroad in the world” or “largest model train display”, you will find Northlandz in the list.
The most important piece of advice for going is this: devote an entire day to your visit, whether you’re bringing the grandkids or not. You may be able to enjoy all of the exhibits in an hour, or you may want to take more time to fully appreciate the astonishing level of detail…and that can truly take a full afternoon.
There is a kids play area in the middle of the museum, which features an organ that Zaccagnino would play for visitors from time to time. Zaccagnino is retired now, but there is still enough to give the little ones a break before they see the rest of the museum.
You can find a few complaints online that Northlandz is on the pricey side, although it’s well worth every penny in this observer’s opinion. That said, there are online coupons to take a few bucks off of the price…just search for “Northlandz coupon”. Military, teachers and seniors get discounts, and persons with disabilities get in for free.
It’s easy to get to Northlandz in less than an hour or so from the Philly area, but should you need to spend the night, there is a Travel Inn & Suites just steps away down the road, and a Hampton Inn a bit further away in the heart of the shopping area of Flemington. The Hampton tends to get better reviews.
If you’re hungry there’s McDonald’s, Chick-Fil-A, and multiple other restaurants where U.S. 202 meets NJ-31 just a short drive away.
One last thing…if you take the kids, they’re going to want to go back. Not that you’ll mind.
The Man Who Built It
Bruce Williams Zaccagnino got started in the same place most all model railroad enthusiasts do: in his basement. More correctly, in a basement of a house that was being constructed, according to the Northlandz website. The construction workers would leave for the day, and he would build mountains and tracks in his new basement.
Like today, nearly everyone who saw his work was quite impressed, to the point where he would open it for the public on weekends. He purchased the land on Route 202 as the popularity grew, and the rest is history.
Zaccagnino was no stranger to artistry, incidentally. He made a decent amount of money in the video game industry, including winning several awards as a developer/designer. He was, according to Sohail, quite the accomplished musician as well. “I watched him play the organs that we have over here. I never saw anybody play that well.”
But Northlandz was his passion, obviously. To the point where he spent his time building his dream, rather than marketing it. Sohail compliments his modesty, but expresses regret that his people didn’t meet him sooner.
“We would have promoted this throughout the world,” he says.
“He’s been interviewed with CNN and Fox, all the major, you know, and he never made a big deal out of that. He’s in the Guinness world records, this place, and he never even promoted that fact. We saw the certificate, it’s sitting on the exhibit and anybody could take it.”
“Bruce didn’t really advertise; he let itself advertise,” says Ken Vogel. “The point was, it was a guy who had a dream about building a great layout and actually pulled it off. The dream is accomplished.”
Zaccagnino is retired now…traveling, according to Julie Parker, so one guesses he’s actually riding trains instead of building them. But he’s appreciative that his art is going to live on.
“I think he was starting to see that a lot of stuff was falling apart,” Sohail reflects. “He had a feeling like if somebody doesn’t save it, it’s going to go away. When we bought it and we started repairing it and cleaning up and everything, he was very happy, you know, my art is being preserved.
“He said, this is my gift to the world.”
The Scrapping Life – R. Fanelle’s Sons Recycling
The Fanelle family no longer owns and operates their Camden-based scrap metal recycling service, but they had a great run…serving the scrapping community from their Camden location for over a century.
I had a chance to interview Tom Fanelle, the third-generation owner of R. Fanelle’s Sons, for the February 2015 issue of JerseyMan. You can view the PDF from the magazine here.
The Scrapping Life
Tom Fanelle will recycle and re-sell just about anything metal, but he has limits.
For instance, don’t try to sell him your prosthetic leg.
“One day,” he explains, “Two guys come in. One guy walks in, the other guy is hanging on to his back. The guy hanging on has no legs. The guy in the front is holding a titanium prosthesis, and he said do you buy titanium? It was the other guy’s leg! One of his two legs, we don’t know what happened to the other one. We threw him out.”
However, he did take the gun that killed Gianni Versace.
“After they investigated Versace’s death, they transported the gun up here; this was a national facility, so the FBI got involved. They did the investigation, they were done with the gun, and they contacted the owner because it was stolen.
“She said, ‘I just want the gun destroyed.’ Philadelphia FBI, Cherry Hill, I had them all here, we had coffee and donuts, we cut the gun and I picked up the pieces. I have them here somewhere. Just for the sake of saving it, not that I would sell it or anything.”
Tom Fanelle is the third-generation owner of R. Fanelle’s Sons Scrap Iron & Metal, a Camden-based recycling scrapyard. R. Fanelle’s Sons recently celebrated an impressive milestone…100 years of recycling metal in South Jersey. No small achievement in an industry with its share of mergers and acquisitions, but Fanelle would tell you that’s been part of their strength.
“We have the personal touch here,” he proudly notes. “If someone calls, they’re talking to me.”
The “R” in R. Fanelle stands for Rocco, Tom’s grandfather, who started the business in 1914. Rocco emigrated from Accettura, Italy, at the age of 18. After a few years working in the rag business with his uncle Donato, Rocco went into business for himself.
“He got a pushcart, walked around the streets and collected scrap,” Tom says. “In those days, there was an assortment of things they used to recycle. They recycled rags, they recycled bones, they recycled dog feces, believe it or not. They recycled paper, metals, things like that. After a few years, he had people come on board, and he had two, then three pushcarts. They would go collect and bring it back to him; he was the home base for collections.
“In the 1930s or 40s, they started buying trucks. For I think three or five dollars a day, different vendors would come and rent the trucks, and now they were able to reach into the suburbs.
“Business flourished during the 50s; it was a good time because we were so industrialized. RCA was one of our main customers. As businesses have died, other businesses have come up since. There’s always some demand, even though manufacturing is down considerably in South Jersey.”
Today R. Fanelle’s Sons serves three types of customers. There are industrial businesses like refineries and chemical companies; commercial businesses like road and demolition contractors; and peddlers…the “mom and pops”, Fanelle says, people with pickup trucks who make their living bringing in scrap metal they find.
When asked if it’s something like Pawn Stars, he shakes his head with a chuckle.
“I always use that as an example, but no. The Pawn Stars people negotiate price, here we have firm prices. Once something is identified as being a certain type of material, it has a price that goes with it. Everything is based on market conditions.
“It’s funny because a lot of people come in and say, ‘Well, I can get ten cents more up the street’. Well, so be it, if that’s what you want.”
Fanelle doesn’t spend time worrying about competition. His customers return, he says, because of the store’s good name. The challenge is maintaining a balance between servicing customers and protecting against metal thieves.
In recent years, the New Jersey state legislature passed bills requiring tougher restrictions on scrap metal dealers. Among the new standards were requiring dealers to pay by check and provide daily records to the state of each transaction. Dealers would also be required to report license plate numbers of anyone bringing scrap to be processed. Both bills passed the legislature but were vetoed by Governor Christie.
Fanelle was quoted in the Gloucester County Times opposing the bills. His concerns were the privacy of his accounts and the nature of his relationships with smaller customers. Otherwise, he didn’t have a problem with most of the legislation.
“Most of the things they tried to enforce, we do. We do photo ID, the license plate number, and everything we buy is documented and associated with a picture ID,” he says.
“One of the things was that they wanted us to stop paying by cash. Well, a lot of these people, they’re hardworking people and they work hand to mouth. They need the money today, the legitimate ones, anyway.
“If my competition does it, that’s fine. I don’t just mean New Jersey, I mean Pennsylvania, Delaware, because that’s what will happen. If you can’t pay by cash, people will go where the cash is.”
Fanelle also points out the problem with daily records. “My complaint was two things: one is, are you going to hire someone to review these every day? They’re available if you need them.
“The other thing is that I have a customer base. What if someone is reviewing my customer base and they have a friend in the business? They can go to their friend and say, Fanelle is buying scrap copper from this guy, why don’t you go see him? My base, I think, is kind of private, and they shouldn’t have that unless they need it.”
Fanelle does concede that theft is a problem. Over the years he has seen some elaborate schemes, like the Locustwood cemetery thefts that were cited as a reason for the legislation.
“A fellow shows up here one day from a local cemetery, and he had all this brass. We said we don’t take it. He says, we’re doing something at the cemetery, we’re replacing these urns. I said if you have some kind of letter from the cemetery, I need something like that.
“He came back; he had a letter and the cemetery truck, so we bought them. He came in again, and again, over a series of months. He’d come in with the truck, and he was on his two-way radio talking with guys at the cemetery, saying we have a funeral at plot so-and-so today. So we thought everything was legit.
“I get a phone call from the Courier-Post one day; someone was doing an article about theft in cemeteries. He started to rattle down names, Calvary, Cole Cemetery. I said wait a minute, before you get to Locustwood, you need to know, they’ve been scrapping stuff. I said it was a project they were doing.
“Next day it ends up in the paper, over 200 urns stolen from Locustwood. When I read the paper, I hit the roof. I called Joe Vitarelli in Cherry Hill; I said you better get down here. So he came down, I explained the story to him, and they got the kid.
“We were led to believe what these things were, and when we heard there was a problem, we went right to the police. We have to be on our guard, we could get in serious trouble.”
Part of the job, but it has its rewards. Fanelle mentions his recent involvement with the S.S. United States Conservancy, in their effort to preserve the 62-year-old ocean liner that once broke the trans-Atlantic speed record. The S.S. United States has been docked at Pier 82 in Philadelphia for 18 years now, but it’s not cheap to keep her there.
“We harvested a lot of metal out of the hull of the ship, bought some propellers, to keep the conservancy able to maintain the ship in Philadelphia. I think it’s been a win-win for both of us. I like to feel as though we’ve supported their cause the past three or four years. That’s a big thing; it’s a lot of notoriety.”
All in a day’s work for Tom Fanelle and his crew, some of whom have been there almost as long as Fanelle, who’s been in the business 45 years now. He jokes about having employees that say 15-20 years there is nothing. Employees are respected as much as customers.
It’s been that way at R. Fanelle’s Sons for a century now.
When asked about the secret to his shop’s continued success, Fanelle keeps it simple and obvious. Treat customers right.
“We go to the end of the world to service our customers. We do whatever we can to make things easy for our customers. People enjoy doing business with us. They’re comfortable with us.
“You can beat somebody and cheat them one time, or you can treat them good and have them ten times. My father used to tell me that.”
Want to Try Scrapping?
There is a link on the R. Fanelle’s Sons website to the iScrap App, a free download that displays market prices of common metals, a listing of all of the different types of metals that get recycled, and tips and news stories for people interested in scrapping.
The glossary of metals includes pictures and descriptions of ferrous and non-ferrous materials, but there’s also an interesting list of electronics: cell phones, backup batteries, speakers, and various parts of PCs, including mice and towers, are all things that can often be brought to a scrap yard for cash.
The app also contains forums where people can share their scrapping tips – one poster described his experience collecting rotting mobile homes and RVs from people’s backyards in exchange for the owner’s paying for the dumpster to carry it to the scrap yard. He claimed the work brought him $10,000 in three months.
As if that weren’t enough, the app includes scrapping news, with more helpful articles for scrappers. Stories include information on the scrap value of forklifts, a video with tips for scrapping cellphones and PC motherboards, and trends in the prices of scrap metals.
Interested scrappers can download it at iscrapapp.com.
Frequently Stolen Metal Items
Metal thefts have increased with the prices of metal, and as Fanelle notes, often times thefts are related to drug usage. Some of the more common items in thieves’ crosshairs include:
Manhole covers: A CNN Money story tells of officials in Beijing, China, replacing the manhole covers with non-recyclable, non-metal materials, after the city lost nearly half of its 600,000 manhole covers to theft. In May of 2008, Newsweek reported increasing manhole cover thefts In Philadelphia, Chicago, and Greensboro, NC.
Copper wire: copper prices increased dramatically between 2002-2007, so much that a black market formed to steal copper wire from phone companies and railroads. In 2008 the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported the theft of a 3,000 pound copper bell from a Buddhist temple; in 2009 the Oregonian reported the story of a man severely burning himself attempting to steal copper wire from a high voltage box.
Cemetery markers: The Courier-Post broke the story of urns being stolen from several local cemeteries including Locustwood; 100 vases were stolen from Brockton Union Cemetery in Boston. In April of 2008, over 1,000 bronze markers were stolen from a concentration camp cemetery in the Czech Republic.
Good For Your Planet’s Health
According to the Institute of Scrap Metal Recycling Industries (ISRI), the reduction in CO2 emissions from worldwide scrap recycling totals approximately 500 million tons each year. On ISRI’s website you can find a fact sheet that lists the gasoline energy equivalent of recycling certain materials, and the resulting reduction in greenhouse gas.
Recycling one car = the energy equivalent of 500 gallons of gasoline = 8,811 lbs. of greenhouse gas emissions
Recycling one refrigerator = the energy equivalent of 36 gallons of gasoline = 566 lbs. of greenhouse gas emissions
Recycling ten lbs. of cardboard = the energy equivalent of 2 gallons of gasoline = 40 lbs. of greenhouse gas emissions
This isn’t to say you would be able to drive 50 miles on ten lbs. of cardboard, but that doesn’t make it landfill material.