The Crumbling Castle of a Brooklyn Entrepreneur

Photo by joojoobee5


    Editor’s Note: This post originally ran in 2010 and has been updated. You can read the original post here.

    Every adventure should include an atmospheric ruin and Bannerman Castle is close enough for jaded New Yorkers to take in. Perched on Pollepel Island in the Hudson River and located just south of Beacon, the castle’s origin is tied to 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, the Bannermans 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 percent of the Spanish arms captured during the conflict. By 1900, Francis 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 the castle and several outbuildings dedicated to storage. 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 U.S. government.

    A smaller castle built in the center of the island was used as a summer home. 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 New York 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. The tours stopped and the castle was abandoned once again.

    Today the castle is the property of the New York State Department 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 2010, a major collapse meant the loss of two and half walls of the iconic tower. The summer home and two arsenals remain, as do the strange turrets in the water. The Bannerman Castle Trust, Inc., a nonprofit group, was organized to assist in preserving and promoting the island. They raise funds for stabilization of the site and arrange public access to the site.

    Bannerman Castle should be seen before it is gone forever.

    How to Visit

    Cars are not permitted on the small island so all guided tours leave the mainland either by boat or kayak. You can choose to depart from Beacon (kayak or passenger boat), Cold Spring (kayak), Cornwall-on-Hudson (kayak) and Newburgh (passenger boat). All tours require walking on rough terrain, no strollers are allowed.

    Address: Pollepel Island, between Beacon and Newburgh, N.Y.
    Hours: May 1 to October 31, go to the Bannerman Castle Trust website for reservations
    Admission: Adults $35, children under 11 $30
    Directions: To catch a boat to the island, take Metro North to Beacon and head to the Beacon Institute Dock, just south and across from the train station. Beacon is just under two hours by car from Brooklyn via the Taconic State Parkway. For more information on kayaking to the island, visit the website.

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