(I decided to split my original post for ease of navigation. Continued from part one.)
Further north in the Hudson, as the train passes through the marshes at Cold Spring and then hooks along the edge of Hudson Highland Park on its way to Beacon, the passenger will see something striking through the window. Standing on an island in the Hudson, conspicuous and incongruous, is a castle.
Or perhaps I should say a former castle, since it is distinctly a ruin now. Only the outer walls remain, its insides gutted and empty. Ivy climbs up the surface and the green shade of trees can be seen through the empty window frames. Even so, it is an impressive sight, with its battlements and crenellated walls standing proudly over the Hudson, like something out of a fairy tale.
But it is clear, upon reflection, that this structure could never have been an actual castle, despite appearances to the contrary. Putting all tactical considerations aside—castles were obsolete during almost all of our history—its brick walls are thin and high, totally unsuited to defensive architecture. (To see what I mean, visit Castle Clinton in Battery Park, which has thick, squat walls, durable and difficult to hit with canon fire.)
Like many passengers on the train, I idly wondered “What is that?” as we passed, my mind drifting off to remote possibilities. When I asked my mom later, she told me that it was built by a rich American with a European wife, who wanted to make her feel at home in the New World—or at least, that’s the story she heard. I was satisfied with this rumored explanation for a time. But upon my return from Spain, I decided to dig a little deeper into the castle’s history. And, as so often happens, the truth is far more interesting than the myths.
Unless you have a boat and don’t mind being penalized for trespassing, the way to visit the castle is on a tour with the Bannerman Castle Trust. These tours depart from either Newburgh or Beacon, two historic towns that are themselves worth visiting. You can choose to go by ferry or kayak. (In a recent homicide case, which made national headlines, a woman was convicted for criminally negligent homicide when she left her fiancé to die in the Hudson after his kayak capsized near Bannerman Island. I took the ferry.)
Our tour left at two in the afternoon. About forty people lined up at the water, and then crossed a wobbly dock to board the ferry. As I said, the tours are given by Bannerman Castle Trust, the same organization that is responsible for the castle’s preservation. They are a genial and jovial bunch who obviously enjoy what they do.
The boat began its short journey to the island. To our left we could see the Newburgh-Beacon bridge, a surprisingly pretty cantilevered steel construction. It was a sunny day and the river was full of boats. Jet skis and cigarette boats zoomed past, making a terrible racket, and kayakers waded in the shallows. Along the way, we passed two antique vessels, a Mississippi paddle wheeler and a sail sloop, and all the passengers waved to each other—people are generally friendlier at sea, I suppose. (The sloop was the Clearwater, the boat built as part of Pete Seeger’s campaign to clean the Hudson.)
The castle seemed to rise out of the sea as we neared. By its juxtaposition, the Hudson Valley was transformed into an alpine lake or a Scottish loch in my eyes. We docked and shuffled out, and the tour guides split us into two groups. Thus commenced an excellent two-hour tour, which explained a history that was far more interesting than I dared hope.
Though commonly known as Bannerman Island, its true name is Pollepel Island. ‘Pollepel’ is one of those place-names that baffle explanation. Our guide told us that his preferred hypothesis was that the island was named after the Dutch word for a wooden spoon, which was also the name for the contraption that deposited misbehaving sailors on the island as punishment. There is also a legend about a girl named Polly Pell, who was stranded on the island and rescued by a brave lad, who she then married—a story which, like all tales of romance, our guide assured us is baseless and false.
In any case, the really interesting history of the island begins in 1900, when it was purchased by Francis Bannerman VI (1851 – 1918).
Bannerman has one of those appealing, Andrew Carnegie, rags-to-riches stories from the nineteenth century. Like Carnegie, Bannerman came to the United States from Scotland, a poor boy in a poor family. After a series of odd jobs, his father ended up in the scrap industry. Then, when the Civil War broke out, Bannerman’s father went to fight for the Union side, forcing the younger Bannerman to quit school and work for the family business. At night, he made extra money by traveling around the New York harbor in a little rowboat, using a hook to dredge up chains and rope that ships had sloughed off into the water, in order to sell them for scrap.
Later, the younger Bannerman started his own scrap company. He found a profitable—and at the time entirely novel—avenue for business in selling old military equipment. You see, after a war is concluded, all sorts of goods—rifles, swords, bayonets, canons, black powder, uniforms, and even canned foods—can be purchased very cheaply. Then, when another war breaks out, it can be sold at lower prices than new equipment, while still making a nice profit. Bannerman didn’t only sell to bellicose governments, however, but became a leading supplier to collectors, bands, vaudeville acts, rodeos, movie producers, circuses, and theater groups. Bannerman’s illustrated catalogue are still regarded as the gold standard by collectors of antique war equipment.
After doing business in several different locations in Brooklyn, Bannerman opened his main shop in Manhattan, at 501 Broadway. But the city government very sensibly decided that it was unsafe to have so much military equipment, including several tons of explosives, in the middle of a major city; so they made him move it out. This is why Bannerman purchased Pollepel island for his armory—it is isolated and therefore safe. The location had another advantage. Since the island is in full view of the train, and since the Hudson, at that time, was crawling with merchant ships, Pollepel was an excellent place to advertise his business from. Hundreds of potential customers would be passing by each day. This is also why Bannerman invested in such ornate architecture. A castle is certainly more eye-catching than a billboard.
Bannerman died in 1918, of “overwork,” as the New York Times obituary said, using one of those euphemisms of the previous era. At the time, he was donating large amounts of equipment to the Allies fighting the First World War. His business model became seriously compromised a few years earlier, when a change in the laws imposed stricter regulations on the trading of explosives—which is good news for the rest of us.
If Bannerman had lived two years more, he would have seen the wisdom of the New York City government in banishing him to the island. For in 1920, one of the powder houses blew up. It was a massive explosion, reportedly breaking windows for miles in all directions—or so said our guide—and blowing a chunk of the wall hundreds of feet across the Hudson onto the train tracks, blocking the train for hours. Bannerman’s wife, Helen, narrowly avoided death (the hammock she had been laying on was hit by flying debris, but she had just gone inside), and her eardrums were ruptured by the shockwave.
Under the direction of Bannerman’s sons, the business carried on for a time, until eventually, in 1967, the island was purchased by the State of New York for parkland. Despite the family’s attempts to sell off their massive store of supplies, there was still much left, some of which was taken by the Smithsonian Museum. The island was opened to the public the next year. But then the next phase of damage to the island occurred. In 1969, the buildings caught fire in a colossal blaze, perhaps an act of arson, destroying everything except the outer brick and concrete walls. After that the island was off limits to the public, for the sensible reason that the remaining structures were unstable and could collapse.
Many years later, in 1993, the Bannerman Castle Trust was founded, which worked with the State of New York to preserve and promote the castle. They have made great strides. Kayak tours, hard-hat tours, and finally, in 2003, walking tours were introduced. The dock where the ferry lands and the stairway that leads up to the island were built under their direction, as was a bridge connecting the two highest peaks of the island (which cadets in West Point helped to construct). They also organize volunteer teams of gardeners, who have created some really splendid gardens on the island. And this is not to mention the historical work.
Thankfully, nobody was hurt when, in 2009, a big section of the outer walls collapsed. To prevent further damage, the walls are held up by long metal braces. Still, it’s worth asking how much longer the structure will last without substantial repairs.
Despite the explosion, the fire, and the collapse—and partially because of them—the castle is magnificent. For me it was a dreamlike experience to be standing near it, since I have been fantasizing about visiting this island since I first laid eyes on the ruin. The façade of the building has many charming architectural ornaments, such as the semispherical balls that run along the top. A resourceful man, Bannerman used vintage bayonets to reinforce the concrete.
The castle isn’t the only structure on the island. On the second highest point—Bannerman was afraid of lightning strikes, so he didn’t build on the highest—is the house in which he and his family stayed. This building was only very recently rehabilitated; only a few years ago, it was covered in ivy. The house is built in the same vein as the castle, a fanciful exterior concealing a homey interior. Now it is a sort of mini-museum, full of old images and informational panels.
In the water surrounding the island, there are still further remnants of Bannerman’s business. During the island’s heyday, Bannerman constructed an artificial harbor, or breakwater, around the island. Now only a few stone towers remain, peaking out of the water. Doubtless more are submerged just under the waves, a hazard for passing boats.
The Bannermans only stayed on the island during summers. But a superintendent, Leonard Owen, stayed all year long; and his daughter, Eleanor, grew up on the island, commuting to school by sled during winter. Two of the historians of the island, Barbara and Wesley Gottlock, recently turned her memoirs into a children’s book. (These two authors also collaborated on the Images of America book on the island, which I relied on for this post.) Bannerman’s daughter, Jane, is still alive and active in the Trust.
Well that’s the story, or at least the quick version. When I began learning about these ruins, I had no idea that they would contain so much history. Perhaps I should stop being so surprised that the world, once examined, is a tremendously interesting place. Ruins are not just food for the imagination. Every ruin, even the humblest, is the product of human hands, and bears the traces of humans dreams and disappointments.