About fifty miles up the Hudson River from New York City, an empty castle crumbles on a rocky island.
The island is commonly called Bannerman’s Island, but it is found on maps as Pollepel Island, and has been known by this name with several variations of spelling. There are tales of a local woman named Polly Pell being rescued from the island or the waters around it by a brave and devoted lover. Less romantically, “pollepel” is a Dutch word for ladle, which is also the name of a device Dutch sailors used to pick up crew members who had been left on islands for being too drunk or rowdy.
During the American Revolution, a series of underwater obstacles were placed between the island and the western shore, but they did little to obstruct British shipping. During the nineteenth century the island had a few sheds on it and served fishers, picnickers, and probably bootleggers and prostitutes.
Francis Bannerman IV was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1851, and moved to America with his family in 1854. When his father went to fight in the US Civil War, young Francis, also called Frank, went the docks in New York with a grappling hook and pulled scrap and lost cargo out of the water that he then sold. Shortly after the Civil War, Frank and his father began dealing in Navy and then Army surplus goods. Francis IV was heavily involved in the family business and eventually began his own company with his father’s approval.
Frank Bannerman realized that many weapons and supplies that were typically scrapped could be sold to foreign militaries that could not afford the most modern equipment. He also realized the historical value that many of the goods he acquired held. Frank put together a huge catalog describing the military goods he had on hand. Soon he set up a store and museum at 501 Broadway in Manhattan.
Bannerman acquired an enormous amount of surplus and captured items from the 1898 Spanish-American War. His business was outgrowing its New York buildings, and Bannerman had to figure out how to store the vast stockpile of weapons, ammunition, and gunpowder he had accumulated, which included millions of rounds of captured Spanish ammunition and tens of thousands of rifles. Neighbors and government officials were not so thrilled about having a pile of explosives sitting in New York.
Bannerman looked upriver to an island that either he or his sons had noticed on an earlier trip. He purchased the island on December 5, 1900.
Construction began on the first arsenal and the caretaker’s house in the spring of 1901. The valley must have echoed with explosions as a level area was blasted from the rocky island.
In 1905, construction began on a bigger arsenal building. Bannerman was not an architect, but he sketched the basic design for his work crews to follow. He was inspired by castles he had seen in his travels, especially those in his old home country of Scotland.
Many of the walls do not meet at right angles, giving the building the appearance of being larger than it is, which is still pretty large.
Also in 1905, Bannerman purchased underwater rights from the State of New York, and built a harbor around the east and south side of the island.
By 1915 the arsenal was completed. Massive lettering on the walls advertised Bannerman’s business to passing boats and trains running along the shore. The island, easily accessible by barge, became a shipping hub for munitions. Cannons, pallets of ammo, or whatever else Bannerman sold could be loaded onto barges for collectors, museums or military customers.
A family home was built high on the island, and the Bannerman family often stayed there during summers. Francis Bannerman got to watch his grandkids play on an island that belonged to the family.
Walkways around the harbor were well-decorated.
If you manage to look inside, you will notice this arch contains a passageway.
Bannerman was an patriotic citizen who strongly supported the Allies during the First World War. He donated clothing to Belgium and a large quantity of armaments to the British government. But that wasn’t enough for his company to escape suspicion.
Supervising the island and its huge stores of arms was an important job. Bannerman was often absent, either running the store in Manhattan or conducting business around the country. In the course of a Naval Intelligence Bureau investigation, Charles Kovac, an Austrian-born superintendent, was arrested on the island on April 19, 1918 on suspicion of being an enemy agent. Apparently he had set aside four machine guns, which he testified were for saluting passing ships. Subject to deportation, he was instead paroled with restrictions. Bannerman objected strongly to the investigations into his business, and protested to Frankiln D. Roosevelt, then acting secretary of the Navy.
Bannerman was eventually exonerated, but it is believed that the stress of being under investigation for disloyalty hastened his demise. He died on November 26, 1918, soon after undergoing gallbladder surgery.
Upon Francis Bannerman’s death, the business passed to his wife Helen and their sons, who continued to use the house as a summer residence.
On August 15, 1920, the powder house exploded with enough force to shatter windows in nearby towns and send pieces of the wall crashing onto the railroad tracks on the shore. A chunk of rock landed on the hammock where Helen Bannerman had been resting moments earlier. Nobody was seriously injured.
The business continued over the next decade, and a reprint of a 1927 Bannerman Catalogue gives a sense of the goods they were dealing. It was the place to go for everything from “Stone Age and Ancient Savage Weapons” to “Gatling Guns, Etc.”
A .50 Caliber Gatling Machine Gun mounted on a special naval carriage is reportedly “Very suitable to enterprising yachtsman ‘cruising among waters infested with pirates.” I wouldn’t argue.
Collectors looking for special guns were advised to allow a second choice when possible.
A historic use of the crossbow was included for the customer.
Of course, swords and bayonets were available.
As were handguns from multiple eras.
Bannerman also acquired a lot of supplies that would be useful for camping.
After Helen Bannerman’s death in 1931 the island was used less frequently. By the late 1950s, Bannerman’s grandsons began closing the business. Professionals were brought in to safely dispose of old ordinance, Smithsonian Institute curators got to take items for the museum’s collection, and the remainder was auctioned. Some locals say that an alcoholic superintendent let anyone take whatever they could carry off in exchange for whiskey. I haven’t found this story in the history books, but it is unclear if everything was accounted for before vandals and looters got to the island.
By the 1960s Bannerman’s Island was frequently unattended and vandals and neglect took their toll. In 1967 the island was transferred to the State of New York, but remained off limits to the public. On August 8, 1969, an intense fire burned through the grounds. After police and firefighters determined that nobody was trapped on the island, the fire was allowed to run its course. The cause of the fire was never determined.
In the 1990s the Bannerman Castle Trust was organized, and the island was opened for guided tours. Efforts are underway to preserve the structures on the island.
A guided tour of course costs money. Kayaking around the island does not, but landing on the island is forbidden. Plum Point, on the west side of the Hudson, has free parking and a place to launch small, non-motorized boats. Crossing the Hudson in a small kayak on a choppy day is not the easiest paddle. I have been on the Hudson when it was very calm but this trip had me cresting waves, taking on water, and being rocked side-to-side when I stopped for photos.
If you want to carry your boat across railroad tracks and launch on big slippery rocks, the Breakneck Ridge train station, on the east side of the Hudson, is significantly closer to Pollepel Island. Maybe there was even a dock there before Hurricane Irene tore up the area in 2011.
Note that Breakneck Ridge station is barely marked from the road, but the parking area along Route 9D for the yellow-blazed Wilkinson Memorial Trail is nearby. Breakneck Ridge station is just a small platform next to the tracks, with a pedestrian bridge about a quarter mile north. Google Maps marks the location of the pedestrian bridge (where there is no parking) as Breakneck Ridge station. There is an overlook at the pedestrian bridge as well. The best overlook is probably along the Wilkinson Memorial Trail on Sugarloaf Mountain though.
Bannerman’s Castle might be falling down, but it remains a historical curiosity in a picturesque setting – a great place for a day’s adventure.
Bannerman Catalogue of Military Goods 1927. Reprint by DBI Books, Northfield, Illinois.
Bannerman, Jane. Pollepel – An Island Steeped in History, Bannerman Castle Trust. http://bannermancastle.org/island-history.html
Johnson, Thom and Barbara H. Gottlock. Images of America: Bannerman Castle. Arcadia Publishing, 2006.
Kowawese Unique Area at Plum Point. Orange County Parks. http://www.orangecountynyparks.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=6&Itemid=3
Rinaldi, Thomas E. Hudson Valley Ruins: Forgotten Landmarks of an American Landscape. University Press of New England, 2006.
Sugarloaf Mountain and Breakneck Ridge Trail. New York – New Jersey Trail Conference. http://www.nynjtc.org/hike/sugarloaf-mountain-and-breakneck-ridge-trail