Two Hudson Ruins—Part 2, Bannerman Castle

Two Hudson Ruins—Part 2, Bannerman Castle

(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.)

Clearwater River Rose
The River Rose and the Clearwater

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.

Bannerman Water

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.

Bannerman Castle Braces

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.

Bannerman House

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.

Water Tower
One of the old towers for the breakwater

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.

Two Hudson Ruins—Part 1, Yonkers Power Plant

Two Hudson Ruins—Part 1, Yonkers Power Plant

(I have broken up my original post into two separate posts, for ease of navigation. You can find part two here.)


Introduction

The train ride on the Hudson Line, from Manhattan to Poughkeepsie, must be one of the most scenic in the United States. The ride has both natural and artificial beauties along the way. The Hudson Valley itself is magnificent, with the palisades across the shimmering waters; and this is doubly true in autumn, when the trees turn their fiery hues. Occasionally you pass a sail boat or a freight barge in the river, or a team of rowers diligently practicing in the Bronx. The train also takes you under the High Bridge, the new Tappan Zee Bridge, and the Bear Mountain Bridge, three engineering feats. A careful rider can even catch a glimpse of Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s old home. (Irving was very annoyed when they built the railroad right next to his house.)

Palisades
Hudson Palisades

Among all this, the most striking landmarks along the way are, for me, the ruins. Specifically, two ruins: the Yonkers Power Plant and Bannerman Castle.

Ruins have a power to fascinate that is difficult to account for logically. They are the same structures that exist, in unruined form, all over the place. The difference between a ruin and a proper structure, architecturally speaking, is pure defect: the ruins have lost their integrity and utility. And yet ruins have been captivating the artistic imagination since at least the Romantic era. Their battered and broken forms have provided inspiration for Shelley’s poems, Byron’s travel sketches, and Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. It was the ruins of Rome that shaped the Renaissance in Italy, and those same ruins that inspired Edward Gibbon to memorialize Rome’s decline and fall.

What is it about ruins that is so compelling? There are many answers. One is that ruins allow us to visualize time. We see how time’s tooth rusts metal, cracks foundations, and crumbles stone. We see what rots away and what petrifies in place. Ruins also allow us catch a glimpse of a world without humans, the world we would leave behind if we all mysteriously disappeared. We can see the natural world slowly reclaiming buildings and walls, as plants and animals invade the empty space. Perhaps we feel what Shelley felt when contemplating the fate of Ozymandias: that humanity’s urge for immortality is futile and vain, since everything eventually decays.

For all of these reasons, and still others, ruins have an undeniable power—as attested by the many photographers, amateur and professional, who go out of their way to document them. This is my little contribution.


The Yonkers Power Plant

Power Station Top

The Hudson Valley has been many things since its water began to carve a channel through the earth: wilderness, scenic escape, suburbia.

One hundred years ago, the valley was an artery of industrialization, dotted with factories and warehouses, noisy with barges and freight trains. The Hudson Valley was also one of the great centers of brick production, its soil baked and sold far and wide, which is why so many of its old buildings are brick. But we are long past the industrial age, and these buildings no longer house factories or store goods. Nowadays they house fine restaurants, cafés, or even libraries, such as the Irvington Public Library, which is in the old Lord and Burnham factory building.

The most impressive of these old factory buildings is still in use: the Domino Sugar Refinery, in Yonkers. Originally built in 1893, this refinery still produces three million pounds of sugar per day. It is one of Domino’s three major refineries, the last major sugar refinery in the Northeast, and a major source of employment within Yonkers. With an old, hulking brick building standing aside newer metal conveyer belts, this refinery is the sister of the more famous one in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which closed in 2004 and was mostly demolished in 2014, except for some buildings given landmark status.

But the grandest ruin of the industrial age sits a few miles north. This is the Yonkers Power Plant, which stands on the river side of the local Glenwood train station. With its smokestacks scolding the sky hundreds of feet in the air, the plant is hard to miss. I often saw it on my commute to the city and wondered, what is it doing here? Why was there such a massive building rotting, empty and neglected, by the side of the tracks?

The answer comes down to power. When the trains began running in the 1840s—connecting faraway places and disturbing Washington Irving’s peace—they were running on steam. By the early 1900s, the railroad was prepared to switch to electricity, using the newly designed third rail. The problem was that, at the time, the municipal electrical grid was not powerful or dependable enough to supply the power. Thus the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, which owned the Hudson Line back then, built their own power plants. The Yonkers Power Plant was situated along the river for several reasons: to be close to the tracks, to take advantage of the water to cool the machinery, and to make it easy to supply the plant with coal, which was delivered by ship.

The power plant was built by the architectural firm, Reed and Stem, who also collaborated on Grand Central Station. (Charles A. Reed was related by marriage to the president of the New York Central railroad, which doubtless helped him get commissions.) The plant opened in 1907, and ran on coal, which was brought by barge to the boiler room below. The steam generated by the boiler was used to power several massive turbines on the floor above. This power, generated in alternating current, was changed into direct current for the trains by rotary converters. (These rotary converters, by the way, are the only heavy machinery still in the factory; the rest was sold for scrap metal.)

Brendan Jenkins
Photo of the interior, by Brendan Jenkins, taken from Wikipedia Commons

By the 1930, it no longer made financial sense for the railroads to be in the power business, so in 1936 the plant was sold to Edison Light and Electric (a subsidiary of Con Edison) and converted to run on oil. This was not a long term solution either, since the plant’s relatively small size (relative to more modern power plants, that is) made it inadequate to New York’s massive power needs. So in 1963, the plant was closed. It was eventually sold to a private owner, who mostly let nature and teenagers have their way. The plant acquired the name “Gates of Hell,” for supposedly being the place where gangs held ritual inductions. Over the years, it became overgrown and covered in graffiti (some of it quite good). Meanwhile, proposals to transform the plant into apartments did not pan out.

(By the way, I am mainly relying on the excellent website, Hudson Valley Ruins, for this information. Their page on the power plant also has many great pictures.)

Most recently, the power plant was purchased by an entrepreneur named Lela Goren, who announced a plan to convert the plant into an arts exhibition center. The building will be renovated in two phases, which will cost $150 million all together, and finished sometime in the next decade. Work began in 2013. The grounds have already been substantially cleared of rubbish and debris, and the walls are being stabilized. I am pleased to learn, from this NY Times article, that Goren plans on keeping much of the industrial aesthetic, even the graffiti.

On a sunny summer afternoon I visited the plant for myself. I stepped off the train at Glenwood Station and craned my neck upward at the redbrick wreck. Despite the work the Goren Group had already done, the place is still visibly a ruin. All the windows are smashed; ivy climbs up iron beams; and an eerie silence pervades the building.

Glenwood is a local station, and few people use it. Aside from the old plant, Glenwood’s main attraction is the Hudson River Museum, which focuses on the river’s ecology. That day, I was the only person standing on the platform. A fence surrounds the old plant, covered in “Do Not Enter” and “No Trespassing” signs, assuring the prospective intruder that video cameras are surveilling the property. Even so, standing there alone on the platform, with nobody else in sight, it was difficult to resist climbing into the ruin. I would not even have had to climb the fence, since a stepladder was helpfully leaned up against it. The ruin still has its visitors.

Ladder
Ladder still used by trespassers

But I’m no daredevil, so I contented myself with patrolling its perimeter. Yet through the gaping windows I could glimpse the cavernous interior space, which many have compared to a cathedral nave. Indeed, compared with a gothic cathedral, the power plant is an exceedingly light, airy structure, with thin walls and plentiful windows. The towering brick façade, combined with the thin steel girders of the building’s innards, make it seem as if an elephant body is being suspended from chicken bones.

Power Station Window

The plant consists of two buildings, the main plant and a substation next door. The substation is where the rotary converters transformed the current from alternating to direct, so the trains could use it; from there the current was sent to the rail tracks. An attractive metal footbridge connects the two buildings. Outside, a metal tower still stands, rusted and overgrown, which I believe used to hold the wires. On the southern side of the station there’s a little park. From here you can see how the station juts out into the Hudson. This must have been to enable the use of the Hudson’s water in the boilers; and, indeed, the boiler room still floods during high tide, I believe.

Skybridge Substation
The plant and substation, with skybridge

I can see why Lela Goren saw potential in the plant, since its location is as attractive as the building itself. Across the river you have an excellent view of the Hudson Palisades. Looking northwards, you can see the Hudson Valley all the way up to the Tappan Zee. Looking south, Manhattan comes into view, a silhouette behind the George Washington Bridge.

Power Station Hudson_Fotor

From this vantage point, with the city in the distance, the river ferrying boats along its glimmering waves, it is difficult to believe that this wonderful brick building was made to simply to supply electricity to trains. It was truly a different time. At its peak, the Yonkers Power Plant could generation 30,000 kilowatts, or 30 megawatts. To put this in perspective, the Indian Point Nuclear Plant in Croton, the Robert Moses Power Dam in Niagara Falls, and the Ravenswood Generating Station in Queens can all generate over 2,000 megawatts. We have come a long way. But unfortunately for us, not one of those is even one-tenth as beautiful as the Yonkers Power Station.

(Click here for Part 2.)

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.