Investment manager John H. Scully was raised in Metuchen and attended the Pingry School, which at the time was located in Elizabeth. As a child, his heart was always in Byram, Sussex County, where he and his family spent their summers in a log cabin tucked next to Cranberry Lake.
His love of the area far transcended the scenic lake or boyhood summer shenanigans. Scully’s real fascination was with the Lackawanna Railroad, which ran the length of New Jersey – and through Cranberry Lake – from the 1850s to 1950s.
“When I was 3 or 4 years old, I loved watching trains go by – it just really got me,” Scully said. “I was mesmerized.”
And he still is.
More than 60 years after he saw his first train, Scully began re-creating the Lackawanna Railroad through a 3,000-square-foot model train set in his East Hampton, N.Y., basement. On Saturday, Aug. 6, 20 years after he laid his first track, that donated set will debut at Jersey City’s Liberty Science Center in the new exhibit “The Great Train Set.”
Scully’s set includes 425 feet of track, as well as models of six railway stations, including the Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken. It also includes models of the local coal mine industry, suburban homes, bodies of water, 5,000 miniature trees and shrubs, 400 people, a drive-in movie theater, and multiple shops and stores, including a grocery store fully stocked, right down to individual sausage links.
The exhibit, which is included with the price of general admission ($25 to $32), also features train point-of-view cameras, with real-time video projected onto the walls of the museum; clips from a documentary about the display called “Still Plays with Trains”; and a star map of the July 1952 sky in Cranberry Lake illuminated onto the ceiling – the same sky Scully perhaps once gazed at while imagining his colossal creation.
When he was about 5, Scully’s mother brought him to Macy’s in New York City during Christmastime, where he saw the store’s iconic, massive train layout.
“John has a vivid memory of this – he just couldn’t understand why he didn’t have a set like that in his home,” said John’s wife, Regina K. Scully, laughing. “I think the seeds of having this large layout were planted at that age. He said, ‘One day, I’m going to build that big layout,’ and that’s really what happened. His little Lionel set went from closet-sized to filling up our 3,000-square-foot basement.”
He began building the train set of his childhood dreams in 2002, after the Scullys finished building their East Hampton home. Soon, the train set became the basement.
“Every month he would say, ‘Regina, we don’t really need that gym, do we? Do we really need that wine cellar?’ It became a joke,“ she said. “Finally, he left me one little treadmill parked in the middle of the repair railroad yard. I had all of these trains go right by me that would need to be repaired. It was a little tight, but it was very sweet and cute.”
“I just got excited from the childhood nostalgia of this train layout,” Scully said. “We wanted to build it and share it with the kids of East Hampton. I’m just a big kid myself.”
Scully enlisted engineers, lighting specialists, carpenters, architects, artists, archivists and electricians to help bring his model to life through 2019. Some of the work was done pro bono, and he didn’t keep track of the rest of the cost. To the Scullys, there wasn’t a price for historical accuracy and attention to detail.
“Every stripe on every train is historically accurate,” Regina said. “Everything is meticulously well-constructed. It was a symphony of talent that put this together. It’s a work of art. John is a history buff, and one of the things he is most proud of in this layout is its 100% historical accuracy. There are history lessons woven in the entire layout.”
For years, hundreds of kids of all ages – including those of celebrities like Jimmy Fallon, Jerry Seinfeld, Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, and the grandkids of Paul McCartney – visited the home of “Johnny Choo-Choo,” as he was known in the area, to see his basement train set. However, when those visits stopped because of COVID-19, the Scullys realized it was time to switch gears.
They began looking for a museum to donate the set to, and were connected with the Liberty Science Center. They were also connected with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. However, John immediately put a stop to the latter.
“I told John that the Smithsonian was interested, and he stopped me mid-sentence,” Regina said. “He said, ‘My trains are not going to Washington, D.C. They’re going to be in New Jersey.”
He couldn’t imagine his creation that he built over 17years being anywhere but the place he was raised and inspired by. It was all driven by a passion for trains, nostalgia and childhood – elements the Scullys hope that visitors can relate to when they visit “The Great Train Set.”
“John said to me, ‘Everyone should be connected to the things that bring them the most joy. It’s a way for people to connect and reminds them what makes them happy,’ “ Regina said. “For John, that’s trains. We all have in our memories the things that bring us the most joy. This triggers that for everyone.”
Go: “The Great Train Set,” Liberty Science Center, 222 Jersey City Blvd., Jersey City, exhibit included with general admission tickets ($25 to $32); 201-200-1000, lsc.org/explore/exhibitions/great-train-set.
Jenna Intersimone has been a staff member at the USA Today Network New Jersey since 2014, after becoming a blogger-turned-reporter following the creation of her award-winning travel blog. To get unlimited access to her stories about food, drink and fun, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.