The Forgotten Castle on the Hudson
On a lonely island fifty miles north of New York City, the bricks of a once-proud castle slowly return to the earth. The crumbling fortress is one of several remaining structures on tiny Pollepel Island, an abandoned six-and-a-half acre crag hugging the east bank of the Hudson River.
The 100 year-old Bannerman’s Castle was originally built as an arsenal, and has been abandoned for the last forty five years since a fire ravaged the island in the summer of 1969. It was the creation of a nineteenth-century businessman and served as an advertisement for the era’s largest military surplus empire.
When the castle’s namesake passed away, the island was forgotten. It’s brief resurrection was cut short by a fatal fire. For half a century the building has been losing battles against nature. Absent intervention in the very near future, it may lose the war.
cover photo courtesy James DiBianco
Francis “Frank” Bannerman VI was only three when his family emigrated from Dundee, Scotland to Brooklyn, New York in 1854. The family business: Bannerman’s Military Surplus (or simply “Bannerman’s”). The company bought and sold everything from scrap metal and munitions to full ships purchased at naval auctions.
When Frank’s father joined the union army to fight in the Civil War in 1865, thirteen year-old Frank was left in charge of the family business.
While young, he understood the value in military surplus goods went beyond that of the underlying scrap metal, and to that end he acquired everything his company could manage.
Under Frank’s guidance, Bannerman’s would become the world’s largest seller of surplus military equipment. Militias and nations would outfit entire armies through Bannerman’s Catalogues. Tales are often recounted how Bannerman’s filled an order for 100,000 saddles, rifles, knapsacks, gun slings, uniforms, and 20 million cartridges during the Russian-Japanese War.
As his inventory grew, so did the need for larger storage. Bannerman later moved his store to 501 Broadway in Manhattan in 1905, but city regulations over the danger of storing ammunition precluded him from keeping inventory at his storefronts in town.
When Bannerman’s was able to purchase 90% of the surplus from the Spanish-American War, the business needed a location to store the merchandise, including the over-100 tons of volatile black powder.
Mostly rock, the 6.5-acre Pollepel Island (see map) was discovered by early Dutch settlers during their first navigation of the Hudson River.
Native Americans reportedly knew of the island, but stayed away as they believed it to be inhabited by unfriendly spirits.
At the turn of the century Bannerman’s was searching for an isolated storage site for the recently acquired (and mostly-explosive) Spanish War surplus.
It was in early 1900 when son David was canoeing along the Hudson and first spotted Pollepel, just off the eastern shoreline.
Realizing it would be perfect for their munitions storage, David told his father of the location’s merits; Frank agreed. Frank immediately purchased the property, and before long he was drawing up plans for a striking castle.
Bannerman intended on using Pollepel Island to advertise his business. Lore tells a story of Frank wanting to rename the island after himself and how it was met with strong opposition from the local residents. He settled by designing the most visible wall of his castle to read “Bannerman’s Island Arsenal.”
Lest it be considered a Pyrrhic victory, many today still refer to the islet as “Bannerman’s Island.”
Francis Bannerman VI was interested in architecture, heavily influenced by castles from his Scottish background. He did not have formal training in design or engineering, but he considered himself to be an amateur architect.
Bannerman had an eye for style, but like many good designers he also had an ego. He largely refused to lean on professionally-trained architects, engineers, and contractors. Instead, Frank preferred to hire general builders and oversee the operation himself.
Acting as conductor allowed him to express design philosophy without intervention… for better or worse.
It’s not surprising that several of Frank’s castle walls were not even in length. Acute and obtuse angles seemed to outnumber the 90s. This quirk gave a casual observer of the building a false sense of it being larger in size than reality.
The lack of right angles was also part of an overall design ethos which at times put form over function. Engineering conventions were sometimes neglected in the name of style, which can reduce overall structural stability.
He was a visionary, but not necessarily a problem-solver. Bannerman would scribble design ideas on cocktail napkins and hand the napkins to the builders, leaving them to their own devices to “make it work.”
The process was enormously frustrating for the builders, but it made for an impressively ornate structure, built free of some typical engineering constraints.
Work would begin on the first of three planned arsenals in 1901, less than a year after purchase. Later a residence and lodge for the workmen were added as well as an ice house and powder house.
But constant alterations resulted in the construction taking over seven years. Bannerman’s interventions slowed progress as he changed his mind with an unreasonable frequency.
Add an arch here. Subtract a window there.
Entire floors were added to buildings after construction; walls were torn down, then rebuilt. The support beams were already inadequate for a structure of this size, but expansion was unrestrained. Doorways were modified as rooms morphed in size and shape; it was the most beautiful fire code nightmare on the Hudson.
The island would eventually have seven buildings, and reportedly due to Frank’s alterations, none had complete blueprints.
(click to enlarge)
In 1905 Bannerman purchased the underwater rights from the state of New York and built a harbor around the southeastern side of the island. The harbor was elaborate for an island of Pollepel’s size and featured arched concrete walkways book-ended by ornate towers. (above)
In 1908 work began on a smaller building southwest of the main arsenal, also designed under the Scottish castle theme. This structure was to become the private summer residence of the Bannerman family.
The Bannerman coat of arms graced the facade of the home, along with a sign that said ‘Crag Inch Lodge.’ The residence building was perched atop a high point of Pollepel Island, giving it magnificent views downriver. (below)
Like the rest of the structures on the island, construction on the residence would be on-going. Frank threw a curve ball at the builders when he decided to add a second floor after construction had already begun. Rooms were modified, altering the floor plan after the foundation had already been poured.
Despite this, the home was a fantastic retreat for the Bannerman family. For nearly a decade the island residence was the subject of fond summer memories for the Bannerman family. When the family was not using the scenic retreat, it served as the island’s caretaker residence.
Helen Bannerman (different person than Sambo Helen) was an accomplished gardener and cultivated a beautiful display of regional and imported flora. Remnants of Helen’s terraced garden are still visible today, a testament to the quality of her craft.
Her gardens added a bright display to the island and quickly became as much a landmark of the island as the main castle. (at left: a re-creation of garden courtesy Bannerman Castle Trust)
By 1915 the main arsenal on the island was finally completed. The infamous “Bannerman’s Island Arsenal” raised lettering replaced the painted walls and served as a permanent billboard to passing boats and trains.
If the ominous island castle wasn’t enough to discourage spies or thieves, Bannerman had a back up plan: armed guards, watch dogs, and warning signs, spread across the island.
Francis Bannerman VI died on November 26, 1918 after undergoing gallbladder surgery. At the time of his death the island was still under construction, although by this time most of the major structures had been completed.
After Frank’s death, new construction on the island stopped. Builders finished their open tasks, but without further guidance no new development took place. Helen would continue to act as caretaker for the island, maintaining the vibrant gardens into the 1920s.
The force of the explosion was severe and reportedly blew the double doors off the containing building; witnesses reported finding a set of double doors still chained together across the river and over the railroad tracks by Breakneck Ridge.
The boom echoed for miles and shattered windows of homes in nearby Cold Spring. The powder house, formerly located near the present-day dock, was completely destroyed in the blast. Shell fragments and debris were sent for miles.
The main arsenal had suffered severe wall damage and lost many windows. The residence sustained wall and window damage as well, although to a lesser extent. Fortunately no one was killed in the incident, but Frank’s decision to build the storage facility on an island now exhibited a certain prescience.
The buildings were not repaired after the 1920 explosion, which allowed nature’s elements to corrupt the integrity of Frank’s creations. Decades of freeze-and-thaw cycles took their toll on the unmaintained castle.
When Helen passed in 1931, the island fell further into a state of disrepair.
Pollepel an Afterthought
The remaining members of the Bannerman family did not share Frank’s vision for the island. More importantly, a changing landscape wrought by new legislation had decimated the profitability of the military surplus business. As the industry evolved, so did the company’s direction.
When the only ferryboat to serve the island, the Pollepel, sunk in the Hudson River during a squall in 1950, the island became an afterthought. In 1957 the final superintendent retired, leaving the island vacant.
(click to enlarge)
The next year Frank’s grandchildren began taking a final inventory and closing the business. First the unsold ordinance was disposed, then the Smithsonian was allowed to select items for the museum collection. What was left went to auction.
The remainder of the business operated out of a warehouse in Blue Point, Long Island until the 1970s.
Photo set courtesy Shaun O’Boyle
In 1967 ownership of Pollepel Island was transferred to the state of New York. On July 1, 1968, it was placed under the supervision of the Taconic State Park Commission.
Several months later the commission re-opened the island to the public, offering guided tours.
Disaster Strikes Again
The tour had not been open for a year before another calamity struck the island. On August 8th, 1969, a fire of unknown origin erupted and permanently damaged the buildings. The island was uninhabited at the time and difficult to access.
The explosive inventory had been removed a decade prior; as there was no threat of explosion, the authorities allowed the fire to burn.
For three days the fire consumed the castle, leaving only brick, cement, and stone behind. The ceilings, floors, and intricate hand-carved woodwork of the buildings which took seventeen years to construct were destroyed in less than seventy two hours.
Also lost in the fire of 1969 was the roof, which left the castle exposed to the elements. The interior walls had capitulated in the fire as well, leaving the castle as a hollow shell. The Taconic State Parks Commission declared the island off limits immediately after, and the island was abandoned once again.
In the 68 years since Frank Bannerman VI purchased Pollepel, the island had suffered numerous disasters. Had the Native American belief of unfriendly spirits proven true?
After the fire in August of 1969 the island was abandoned. For forty years the castle sat exposed, enduring seasonal weather cycles. In the 21st century, nature has not been kind to the former arsenal.
During late December of 2009, the castle disintegrated further. Nearly one third of the south wall and about half of the east wall collapsed, permanently altering the castle’s silhouette.
The southeast corner of the Tower – the tallest portion of the structure – collapsed during the final weekend of 2009. In 2010, a storm on January 25th claimed the north wall of the Tower.
Trespass and vandalism have also been a concern, although to a lesser extent due to the difficulty in accessing the island.
Unfortunately the remaining windows of the residence were smashed by vandals, along with some of the original Bannerman furniture that had been left behind in the residence.
The workmen lodges and number 2 and 3 arsenals have thus far escaped major disaster, but they are in poor condition and in no less danger of collapse.
photos courtesy PicturedbyDesign
The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation is responsible for the island, however the department’s current limitations preclude contributions beyond administrative management.
One organization has endeavored to save the buildings although the donation-fueled restoration has been slow. Since the early 1990s, the Bannerman Castle Trust has carried the torch to preserve what is left of Frank Bannerman’s Island Arsenal.
(click to enlarge)
The Trust has modest, but attainable goals: stabilize what is left of the remaining structures and prevent further decay.
Trust President Neil Caplan announced five of the seven structures could be stabilized – but he also admitted a full restoration is unrealistic. “We would restore them as ruins and probably make it so you could get inside them.”
To date, the Trust has stabilized the residence with hopes of eventually turning it into a visitor’s center.
In April of 2011, the Bannerman Castle Trust announced work would begin on a $286,000 project to shore up the island’s residence. The funds were earmarked to restore and repair the floors, roof, and stairways.
Today, what’s left of the castle is still visible to riders of the Amtrak and Metro-North Hudson lines.
The railway operators have not been shy about using the picturesque landmark in advertising; the castle often finds itself gracing covers of rail travel schedules. (above left)
See Bannerman Island
The island is closed but there are still several ways to see the remains of Bannerman’s Arsenal. The Pride of the Hudson Cruise departs from Newburgh Landing, directly on the river just north of Pollepel Island. The cruise offers historic photos of the castle along with narrative from members of the Bannerman Castle Trust.
Bannerman Island Castle Cruise Tours also departs from Newburgh Landing. If kayaking sounds better, Storm King Adventure Tours in Cornwall, NY offers a 3-4 hour guided tour (with island historian) launching from the west side of the Hudson. On the east side of the river, MountainTops offers kayak tours out of Beacon, NY.
Frank Bannerman released an annual Catalogue listing the company’s military surplus merchandise. Published regularly from the 1880s until the 1960s, they featured company merchandise and expanded over time.
At its peak the Catalogue was nearly 350 pages, an almanac of surplus. The booklet was thorough and featured illustrations of everything from Moroccan sheik saddles to African arrows with barbed metal points.
Sales were not limited to military nor were customers limited to weaponry. Bannerman’s supplied uniforms to illustrators and theatrical productions. The Catalogue also offered camping gear and outdoor equipment.
Over time the Bannerman’s Catalogue became an encyclopedia of military equipment. Today some collectors insist the Catalogue is the foremost resource on historic weapons of war.
Excerpts from the 1927 Bannerman’s Catalogue Below:
Bannerman Catalogue of Military Goods 1927. Reprint by DBI Books, Northfield, Illinois.