Located an hour or so north of NJ in Beacon, NY there is a castle whose history is as strange and unusual as the building itself. If you drive along Route 9 on the eastern side of the Hudson River you might just catch a glimpse of it, a castle on a river, crumbling and falling apart. “Who built it? And why? And how can I get onto that island?” you might ask….
THE HISTORY OF POLLEPEL ISLAND
Bannerman Castle sits on Pollepel Island approximately 1000 feet from the eastern banks of the Hudson. Dutch vessels going up and down river would sometimes drop off drunk or unruly passengers (or crew) onto the island, and return for them a day or two later, very hungry and very willing to behave. The legend had it that Heer of the Dunderberg and his goblins also defended the island from intruders. (Heer was a legendary figure in Dutch mythology). The Indians were reportedly afraid of the island as well, at least at night anyway…
The name Pollepel has many possible origins, including the Dutch word for spoon, or possibly a misspelling or variation of an Indian word. The most well known story behind the name comes from a love story that took place on the riverbanks near here. Paul Vernon, a minister from British-held New York, boarded at a farm owned by the Pell family. He fell in love with Mary Pell, but she was interested in a local boy named Guert. The two were planning a sleigh ride up river (which was frozen at the time). The minister warned them that the ice was not thick enough to safely make the trip, but they persisted. He came upon them later, hearing the horses struggling. They had fallen thru the ice and the sleigh was about to sink, and Paul rescued the horses. The 3 of them ended up on an ice cap in the river, which brought them ashore on to an unnamed island. Polly proclaimed her love for Guert, and the minister married the pair on the spot. Paul swam to the river banks in the morning, but the locals thought she had married Paul, and from then on the island was known as Polly Pell.
Francis Bannerman VI was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1857 and came to the United States at a young age, and began collecting scrap metal and other salvage items, often going into the harbors and collecting what e would call garbage, like bits of rope and fishing nets. This proved to be quite lucrative. At the end of the Civil war he began collecting war surplus item, including ammunition, gunpowder, and weapons.
He ran his salvage operation from a warehouse in Manhattan, and after the Spanish American war he was in possession of nearly 90% of the military supplies sold off, as well as 30 million rounds of ammo. Needless to say, the residential neighborhood where his cache of military surplus was located was not thrilled about what was being stored, and soon the city of new York demanded he move his warehouse outside city limits.
At about the same time, his warehouse was reaching capacity and Bannerman was considering alternate locations anyway, not just for his business but places to live as well. He desired a castle in line with the castles that could be found in Scotland and England. On Pollepel Island he found the perfect location to both live and work.
The island had easy access to shipping so this made his costs lower. The island isolated him from the outside world so there would be no neighbors to fret about the possibility of explosions. It also gave him security and solitude so he could work without disturbance. Most of all though, he could build a castle to his tastes which would overlook the wide Hudson River. It was perfect.
Construction began in 1901 and was finished in 1908. The Castle was designed to be as eye catching as possible (to advertise of course), thus the words BANNERMAN ISLAND ARSENAL were emblazoned across the side of the main building, with letters 4 & 1/2 feet tall. Bannerman himself designed the buildings, giving his builders little more to work with then a sketch or a drawing. measurements, blueprints, schematics, a weapons collectors knows not these things. Nor does any of the buildings have any right angles, because Bannerman refused to design any of them that way!
Bannerman considered himself a patriot, and often expressed the desire that his collection of war artifacts would someday be known as a “museum of lost arts”. Unfortunately, because of rumors that he may have provided aid to the enemy in WWI, the government stationed troops on the island until 1918. This broke his heart and h died shortly thereafter.
The family maintained the business into the 1970’s but towards the end based their operations out of long Island, abandoned the island in the early 60’s and the property was deed to the state in 1967. In 1962, before the land was given to the state and before the dire that would destroy much of the buildings in August 1969, Bannerman’s grandson Charles wrote, “No one can tell what associations and incidents will involve the island in the future. Time, the elements and maybe even the goblins of the island will take their toll on some of the turrets and towers, and perhaps even the castle itself. This little island will have it’s place in history and in legend and will be forever a jewel in the Hudson Highland setting…”
From the 60’s the island lay abandoned, the icy winters, the fire and the passing of time destroying the ornate buildings, nature reclaiming the paths and trails. The island is accessible by boat only (obviously) and few have attempted to land on its shores, before or after Bannerman claimed it as his home. The shores are very very shallow, making boat access quite tricky unless the boat has very little draft, making canoes the only real way to get on the island, if one is willing to brave the quick currents and cold waters of the Hudson.
A non-profit group called the Bannerman Castle Trust is currently working to preserve the buildings, restore them and create a museum to the history and memory of Bannerman Castle & Pollepel island. Tours of the island have been limited to boat tours that encircle the island., but in October 2004 the first on-island tours took place. Volunteers created trails (some of them not terribly safe), roped off unsecured areas, and created a dock and stairs to get from the boat to the top where the buildings stand. I was quite thrilled to be on the first boat of visitors to the island.
October 26th, 2004 was relatively cold but no frigid day, made worse by the winds on the Hudson. We rode about 2 miles from the boat launch by the train station to the island. We jumped onto floating docks, then climbed a flight of stairs to the top. Once there we all donned hard hats and a guide began explaining the history of the island going back to the days of the Revolution, the Indian legends, all the way thru current times.
The instructor personalized this by telling a story of how as a young child he and others came to the island and found old Spanish American War pouches for holding ammunition. This was in the days not long after the fire which destroys the interior of the main building. We followed the partial restored stone path to the main house, and then around to the main storage building. The tour itself was about an hour plus about 20 minutes travel each way.
The Trust hopes to actually restore some of the building and to make the others one safe to at least go into on tour. The island needs a lot of work and they are actively seeking volunteers to do work, as well as donations to the restoration of the island. They also seek to build a museum of sorts with artifacts from the Island and the family. The trust recently interviewed some of the works who helped building the castle, or who worked at the company during the early days. Unfortunately vandalism has begun o be a problem. Since they began working on clearing the island, vandals have used small boats to sneak onto the island and steal artifacts, break things, and even steal workman’s tools. The island is now under 24 hr video surveillance, so don’t even think of sneaking onto the island. It’s a dangerous trip and you’d be trespassing. Besides, tours are run in the spring and summer, tickets priced at $40. You can visit by canoe for $100 (including canoe rental). For more details contact the Bannerman Trust.
See all the pictures here