Staycation: Bannerman Castle

Editor’s note: This story has been updated. The new version can be seen here.

For many of us, staycations are this year’s vacations. Instead of the cottages and castles of the Continent, visit one of New York’s fascinating house museums. Each week, for the entire summer, we’ll alternate between a site in New York City, or one in greater New York State. Many of these houses are in danger of closing if we don’t patronize them. Check them out, and go visit! If you’ve been, please leave comments and suggestions, including dining or any other amenities.

Name: Bannerman Castle/ Bannerman Island Arsenal
Location: Pollepel Island, between Beacon and Newburgh, NY
Address: Hudson Highlands State Park, Route 9D, Beacon, NY 10512
Hours: May to October, call for reservations
Admission: $30 adult, includes boat ride and guided tour
Children: $25, 11 years and younger
Directions: See website

Details: Every summer staycation should include a ruined castle, and this one is close enough for jaded New Yorkers to take in. The tale of the castles’ origin, and its fate today, are all tied up appropriately, by the success of a Brooklyn entrepreneur.

Francis Bannerman was born in Scotland in 1851 and emigrated to the US in 1854 with his parents. They moved to Brooklyn and opened a military surplus business in 1865, purchasing surplus military equipment after the end of the Civil War. Their business started at the Navy Yard, and then moved to an old rope factory on Atlantic Avenue. In 1897, Bannerman’s opened a store on Broadway in Manhattan to outfit volunteers in the Spanish-American War. By the end of the War, they had purchased over 90% of the Spanish arms captured during the conflict. By 1900, he had tons of live ammunition shells in Brooklyn, and needed to find a place to store them, away from populated areas. He bought Pollepel Island, and in 1901 started to build his arsenal/warehouse. He designed it himself, and let his contractors interpret his designs as they saw fit.

The result was a huge castle dedicated to storage, with several outbuildings, with a smaller castle in the center of the island for use as a family residence and summer home. The enormous castle, which could be seen from the river, was a huge advertisement, and he had Bannerman’s Island Arsenal carved into the wall facing the mainland. During World War I, Bannerman sold cannons, uniforms and blankets to the US government. His wife was an avid gardener, and planted trees, flowers and shrubs along the paths and on the grounds, and the family spent many summers here. Bannerman died in 1918, and in 1920, 200 tons of shells and gunpowder exploded in an arms depot, destroying part of the complex, and spelling the beginning of the end of the Bannerman empire. In 1950, a storm sunk the ferryboat Pollepel, and from that time on, the island and the castle were more or less abandoned.

The state of NY bought the island in 1967 and began giving tours of the castle in 1968, after making sure there was no live ammo laying around. But a fire in 1969 burned out the roof and floors, and the tours stopped and the castle was abandoned once again. Today the castle is the property of the NY State Dept. of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and lies in ruins. Vandals have done their mischief, as have the elements. As the buildings have deteriorated, it was discovered that Bannerman and his builders used recycled bed frames, bayonets, old mattresses and other military salvage to bulk up the cement covered brick construction. It’s no wonder it’s falling down. In 2009, most of the front of the castle, with the Bannerman name, crumbled to the ground, reported by a motorist passing on the highway along the river. More of the walls have since collapsed, so that only the west and part of the south wall remain. The summer home and numbers 2 and 3 arsenals remain, as do the strange turrets in the water, and are in much better shape. A visit today must be arranged through the Bannerman Castle Trust, the non-profit that now oversees the island. All guided tours leave the mainland either by boat or kyack, and hard hats must be worn at all times. The Bannerman Trust is soliciting for donations for the stabilization of the ruins, as well as the restoration of buildings that can still be saved. The plan is to turn the Bannerman summer home into a visitor’s center. Tours leave from Beacon, Cold Spring, Cornwall and Newburgh, and all tours require walking on rough terrain, no strollers are allowed. Bannerman Castle should be seen before it is gone forever.

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