The Liberty Science Center will exhibit the Metuchen native’s train
Investment manager John H. Scully grew up 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, where he and his family spent their summers in a log cabin nestled beside Cranberry Lake.
His love of the area far transcended the scenic lake or the summer shenanigans of his childhood. Scully’s real fascination was the Lackawanna Railroad, which ran all over New Jersey – and through Cranberry Lake – from the 1850s through the 1950s.
“When I was 3 or 4 years old, I loved watching trains go by – it really touched me,” Scully said. “I was hypnotized.”
And he still is.
More than 60 years after seeing his first train, Scully began recreating the Lackawanna Railroad through a 3,000 square foot model train set in his basement in East Hampton, NY. On Saturday, August 6, 20 years after laying its first track, this donated set will debut at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City in the new exhibit “The Great Train Set.”
Scully’s set includes 425 feet of track, as well as models of six stations, including Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken. It also includes models of the local coal mine industry, suburban homes, water features, 5,000 miniature trees and shrubs, 400 people, a drive-in cinema and several shops and stores, including a well-stocked grocery store, down to individual sausage links.
The exhibit, which is included in the general admission price ($25 to $32), also includes train vantage point cameras, with real-time video projected onto the walls of the museum; excerpts from a documentary about the exhibition entitled “Always play with trains”; and a star map of the July 1952 sky at Cranberry Lake illuminated overhead – the same sky Scully may have once gazed upon while imagining his colossal creation.
When he was about 5 years old, Scully’s mother brought him to Macy’s in New York City over Christmas time, where he saw the store’s iconic, massive train layout.
“John has a vivid memory of it – he just couldn’t understand why he didn’t have a device like this in his house,” John’s wife, Regina K. Scully, laughed. “I think the seeds of having this big disposition were planted at that age. He said, ‘One day I’m going to build this big network,’ and that’s really what happened. His little set Lionel has gone from the size of a closet to filling our 3,000 square foot basement.
He began building the train of his childhood dreams in 2002, after the Scullys finished building their house in East Hampton. Soon the train became the basement.
“Every month he was like, ‘Regina, we don’t really need this gym, do we? Do we really need this wine cellar? It became a joke,” she said. “Finally, he left me a little treadmill parked in the middle of the repair yard. I ran all these trains right by me that needed fixing. It was a little tight, but it was very soft and cute.
“I’m just excited by the childhood nostalgia of this train setup,” Scully said. “We wanted to build it and share it with the kids in 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 track the rest of the cost. For the Scullys, there was no price for historical accuracy and attention to detail.
“Every tape on every train is historically accurate,” Regina said. “Everything is meticulously well constructed. It’s 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’s most proud of in this layout is its 100% historical accuracy.There are history lessons woven throughout the layout.
For years, hundreds of children of all ages – including those of celebrities like Jimmy Fallon, Jerry Seinfeld, Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, and the grandchildren of Paul McCartney – have visited the home of “Johnny Choo-Choo “, as he was known in the area, to see his basement train. However, when those visits ceased due to COVID-19, the Scullys realized it was time to shift gears.
They began looking for a museum to donate the set to and were connected to the Liberty Science Center. They were also linked to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. However, John immediately put a stop to the latter.
“I told John the Smithsonian was interested and he cut me off mid-sentence,” Regina said. “He said, ‘My trains aren’t going to Washington, D.C. They’re going to be in New Jersey. “
He couldn’t imagine that his creation which he built for 17 years would be anywhere other than where he was raised and inspired. It was all driven by a passion for trains, nostalgia and childhood – elements the Scullys hope visitors can relate to when visiting “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 remind them of what makes them happy,'” Regina said. “For John, it’s the trains. We all have in our memories the things that bring us the most joy. It 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-$32); 201-200-1000, lsc.org/explore/exhibitions/great-train-set.
Jenna Intersimone has been a staff member of the USA Today Network New Jersey since 2014, having become a blogger-turned-journalist after founding her award-winning travel blog. To get unlimited access to her food, drink and fun stories, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.