By Lenore Person
Buried on an island in the Hudson, beneath the brittle body of century old castle walls and thin hair of tangled vines, lie Civil War bayonet scabbards and the ashes of Irish linen bed sheets.
This is the remnant of a Scotsman's fortress called Bannerman Castle -- built not as a home, but as an arsenal for his immense collection of weapons. Public access to this island has had a small window of opportunity, curtained by Native American and Dutch settler's fear of resident spirits and goblins, and then restricted since 1900 for more contemporary safety reasons.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the island being owned by the People of the State of New York, and it is one group's vision that the public will soon regain access to this legendary site.
I have driven on 9D between Cold Spring and Beacon no less than fifty times, and never noticed a castle on an island in the Hudson. This time, I looked for it. Just north of Cold Spring, my friend and I climbed the pedestrian overpass at Metro North's Breakneck Ridge train stop. On our right, the beautiful, broken down facade of Bannerman Castle beams like the winner of a childhood game of hide and seek.
We left planning to go rent a canoe and come back the next day. That evening, I called a friend who is an amateur local historian. "Sure I've been to Bannerman Island. It's covered with poison ivy. And it's infested with snakes and deer ticks. Oh, and watch out for the current. I once watched canoes paddle for hours trying to get to the island. Make sure you put in north of the island when the current is flowing south."
My nerve rushed away like a Hudson River tide. I began to look for a safer way to learn more about this abandoned castle.
The National Maritime Historical Society, tucked under the Crystal Bay restaurant at Peekskill's Charles Point, is a haven for Hudson River aficionados. There, the Bannerman Castle Trust, an organization dedicated to stabilizing the ruins of Bannerman Castle and opening the island to the public, hosted a slide show and lecture one cold winter night late last December. After the graduation ceremony for an advanced sailing class, Neil Caplan, the Trust's founder and President spoke. A short man with long nights showing under his eyes began, "Four years ago I came to this area looking for a place to do theater. When I saw Bannerman Castle, I fell in love!" The Trust's persistence has swung Albany's attention to the rapidly deteriorating castle, and they have won the small but monumental right to study the possibility of opening Bannerman Island to the public. Neil went on, "We've brought architects and engineers to the island, and they say that five out of the seven buildings can be stabilized."
When the Trust takes officials out to the island, it is often in Thom Johnson's aluminum rowboat, with him at the oars. Thom is the Trust's vice president, a tall sturdy man with a gray ponytail and renaissance ability for photography, painting, educating and R&B drumming. Out of his many trips to the island, beginning when he was taken by a friend as a teen, he has created a stunning slide show of Bannerman Castle, complete with fascinating, righteously opinionated narration. He begins, "I like to think of Bannerman Castle as a giant billboard. Although local residents wouldn't let Frank Bannerman change the name of the island, on the north and east sides of his warehouse, it says BANNERMAN'S ISLAND ARSENAL, obvious to all who pass by on train and boat."
The intersection of Pollope Island with the Bannerman family is one of fate -- the magnetic pull of two entities shaped by the legacy of the battlefield.
On maps it is Pollopel Island: 6 3/4 acres of mostly rock; 1,000 feet from the eastern shore of the Hudson; 50 miles north of New York City. During the Revolutionary War, patriots unsuccessfully tried to stop the British from advancing north of the island by sinking 106 upright logs tipped in iron points in the Hudson. Later, General George Washington approved plans to use the island as a military prison.
The castle's builder, Frank Bannerman VI, was a Scottish patriot, very proud of his descent from one of the few Macdonald's to survive the massacre at Glencoe in 1692. During the 1690's, the King of England demanded allegiance from the Scottish clans. Legend has it that the Macdonald clan was slow to give the British their oath of loyalty. Acting on behalf of the Crown, a rival clan, the Campbells, slaughtered all Macdonald males ages 12-70. One escaped to the hills with the clan banner -- and from that day on, his family name was Bannerman.
The Bannerman family immigrated in 1854, when Frank was three, and settled in Brooklyn. His father established a business selling flags, rope and other articles acquired at Navy auctions. When he joined the union army during the Civil War, 13-year-old Frank began running the business. At the close of the Civil War, the U.S. government auctioned off military goods by the ton, mostly to be scrapped for their metal. Young Frank can be called the "Father of the Army-Navy Store," for he was one of the first to realize that much of what was being sold had a market value higher than scrap. Under his guidance, Bannerman's became the world's largest buyer of surplus military equipment. Their storeroom and showroom, taking up a full block at 501 Broadway, opened to the public in 1905. Of it, the New York Herald said, "No museum in the world exceeds it in the number of exhibits."
Frank prospered and married an Irish woman he met during a business trip to Ireland. They had three sons. At the close of the Spanish American War, Frank Bannerman purchased 90 percent of all captured goods in a sealed bid, and it became necessary to find a secure place to store their large quantity of very volatile black powder. His son, David, saw Pollopel Island, in the Hudson, and Frank Bannerman purchased it in 1900.
During the next 17 years, Frank Bannerman personally designed the island's buildings, docks, turrets, garden walls and moat in the style of old Scottish castles. Almost all of it was done without professional help from architects, engineers and contractors. And all of it was elaborately decorated, from biblical quotations cast into all fireplace mantles, to a shield between the towers with a coat of arms, and a wreath of thistle leaves and flowers.
Thom Johnson's magnificent slides show the venetian tilt of Margaret's Tower at the end of Bannerman's harbor looking like a giant chess piece. Next, a close-up of the elaborate facade of the main warehouse. Fondly, he says, "There is no way to describe something so eccentric. Look at the north view -- there's no right angles on these buildings! Look at all these textures, all that he did with masonry. It's a piece of sculpture! The style is almost gaudy, but somehow he manages to pull it off. Bannerman know exactly what he was doing, and he did it his own way."
Frank Bannerman's grandson, Charles, married Jane Campbell, bringing happy American closure to an ancient Scottish rivalry. Now an active widow in her 80s, Jane is very much involved in the Bannerman Castle Trust. I called her at her apartment in Manhattan, and she recalled earlier days at Bannerman Island. "I was there for the first time in the 1930's. It was very well maintained -- there were two men taking care of it -- but it was also fairly intimidating. We traveled up the west side of the river, to the Storm King Mountain lumberyard. There, the caretaker, Frank Crawford, came to meet us in the work boat. That first time we walked around and explored, there was so much to see! I remember that there wasn't much power, you had to turn one light bulb off before you could turn the next one on."
Bannerman Island was primarily a warehouse, storing mostly war weapons and explosives. Also scattered about were invaluable relics such as the chain placed across the river at West Point during the Revolution (though some question its authenticity), a table owned by General Washington, and arctic equipment Admiral Perry used on his trip to the North Pole. Millions of fascinated travelers passed by on the railroad and the Dayline steamer; their access was barred by armed guards, watch dogs, warning signs and red flags.
In the early 1900s, Bannerman's supply of military goods was staggering. Nations at peace were his customers. Thom Johnson approximates that "50 percent of the commemorative cannons placed in public areas were purchased through Bannerman's." And nations at war outfitted whole armies through Bannerman's. During the Russian-Japanese war, Bannerman's filled an order for 100,000 saddles, rifles, knapsacks, haversacks, gun slings, uniforms and 20 million cartridges, as well as a shipload of assorted military goods.
Collectors claim that the Bannerman catalog is the best book ever written on weapons of war. Published regularly from the 1880s to the 1960s, its approximately 350 illustrated pages feature African arrows with metal barbed points to a Moroccan sheik saddle in serviceable order. They supplied countless theatrical productions with uniforms for costumes, and many illustrators and painters with military detail. But the Bannerman family also understood little boys. They advertised their large, illustrated catalog in the back of pulp magazines in the 1920s and '30s for 40 cents.
"To my generation, Bannerman's was a real evocative name," says Bob Parker, now a man nearing 70. "My brother and I used to get the catalog in New Mexico where we lived in the 1930s, and buy kepis (hats) issued in the Civil War for seventy five cents! A lot of things came in their original crates, never unpacked. It was a great place for tack, cots, tents, saddles ... I still have my kepi from 1935."
Francis Bannerman died in 1918, and the family business operated until the 1970s out of a warehouse in Blue Point, Long Island. In 1967, the family sold Bannerman Castle to New York State, which took possession after all of the old military merchandise was removed and the relics given to the Smithsonian. Jane Bannerman recalls, "The island was closed down by the manager of the Manhattan store. He was very devoted, but it was a gigantic task. We always meant to go back to get personal things, like my grandmother's Irish linen bed sheets."
New York State had plans to open Bannerman Island as a park, and for a short time in 1968 they ran tours of the island. But the night of August 8, 1969, a raging fire of unknown origin destroyed all of the buildings. Since then, the Taconic State Parks Commission declares it off limits.
Bob Parker lived in Putnam County during the 1970s, and childhood memories of Bannerman's catalog lured him out to the castle ruins. "My sons and I used to keep a boat in the reeds next to shore. We had it there for a few years. Every summer about twelve of us would go out to Bannerman for beebee gun wars. We'd pry up ceilings looking for relics; stuff that survived the fire. We found hinges from cots, and a huge pile of bayonet scabbards. We were certain that under the collapsed roofs there was the heavy stuff that never sold, but we couldn't get to it without tools."
Jane Bannerman is one of only a handful of people to know Bannerman Island's glorious past first-hand. She knows that the castle's only hope is the Bannerman Castle Trust, which is working with the Taconic Park Commission in formulating a master plan for the buildings' stabilization. She says, "In the end, it all comes down to money, and if they don't hurry up, it'll all fall down. Every winter brings more destruction."
NOTE: Do not attempt to visit Bannerman Island. At this point it is a very treacherous combination of buried hazards and dangerous wall conditions.
To see Bannerman Island, take a Pride of the Hudson cruise. Historic photos of the Castle are on board, and the cruise is narrated by Bannerman Castle Trust's Thom Johnson or Neil Caplan. All boats leave Newburgh Landing. For more information, call (845) 782-0685.
Thanks to Thom Johnson for the photography on this page.
To become a friend of Bannerman Castle, call 845-831-6346, or send a check to:
The Bannerman Castle Trust
PO Box 843
Glenham, NY 12527