Model railroad museums still a draw in virtual reality age [photos]

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Laurence T. Gieringer got the big idea for his tiny world in 1903 when he was only 9 years old. Located along Interstate 78 in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania, Roadside America is a more than 6,000 square feet, handcrafted display featuring model railroads, moving waterways, working lights and miniature buildings. 

Gieringer’s mini-museum in Berks County was finally completed right before he died in 1963.

Roadside America manager Brian Hilbert is married to Gieringer’s great-granddaughter. “Everything is hand built by scratch, everything, scrap wood, and I mean everything he did. I mean all the lighting, all the painting, trees, houses, landscaping, every single thing,” he said.

Hilbert said in 1953 the display attracted more than 100,000 visitors. This year he expects about 38,000 and says those numbers are growing again.

“People that have come here now, they’ve been here when their grandparents brought them here, or like their parents have brought them here, and then their bringing their kids here,” he said.

Tradition is one of the reasons Jeff Carroll traveled with his family more than three hours from Chesapeake, Maryland, to take in the miniature landscape. He said his wife visited Roadside America with her parents when she was young and they want their children to share in that experience.

“I think it’s very important that we keep exhibits like this going across the country. As new theme parks and different, you know, attractions come upon us these kind of things tend to phase out, but this is one that has remained.” Carroll said. “So, I think it’s really important that we keep things like this open by coming to visit them and passing on these, you know, this history to our children.”

About 80 miles down the track and over the Delaware River in Flemington, New Jersey, Bruce Zaccagnino’s hobby has expanded into what the Guinness Book of World Records called the world’s largest model train exhibit. It’s called Northlandz and has 40,000 square feet of track with more than 80 trains running simultaneously.

It’s such a big deal for train enthusiasts that the entryway features famous autographs including Neil Young, Rod Stewart, and Pee Wee Herman to name a few.

Zaccagnino, who is solely responsible for the design and maintenance of the displays, said they’re popular in a day of virtual reality because they are tangible and real.

“Everything is so digital with games and internet, social [media] and so forth,” Zaccagnino said. This is something you can sink your teeth in entertainment wise.”

Kit Dalluppi visited from Quakertown, Pennsylvania. The 82-year-old said she hopes places like Northlandz last for a very long time because they give people a connection to the past.

“It’s educational,” she said. “It’s things that are going out that our little ones don’t see.”

Zaccagnino has plans to expand Northlandz in the near future. Roadside America is seeking to raise $80,000 through a GoFundMe campaign to repair a leaky roof. Hilbert said the leaks have yet to affect the display, but it could if they can’t make the fix.

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