By Bob Nesoff
The hulking remnants of a brick castle looms over the usually peaceful flowing waters of New York’s Hudson River. It belies the history of war implements and a massive explosion that rocked a small island in the middle of the river.
This is the Castle of Bannerman’s Island in the middle of the Hudson. While visitors climb its slopes to see the magnificent views of the river and the shoreline, few are aware that Bannerman’s Island was once a storehouse for implements of war that could supply virtually any army of almost any size.
Today the Castle is a gutted shadow of its former glory. Francis Bannerman VI would shudder at what has happened to the magnificent mansion he built at the crest of the island. The remnants of the Castle would bring more than a tear to his eyes.
Bannerman was born in Northern Ireland in 1851 and came with his parents to the United States in 1854, settling in Brooklyn. There the Bannerman’s began, a military surplus business that would grow beyond their imagination before crashing down into rubble.
In 1900 Francis purchased what was then known as Pollepel Island for use as a home and storage facility for the rapidly growing arms business. He moved some 30 million pieces of munitions and soon added weapons, uniforms and other implements of warfare. He built the Castle to store everything and a smaller “castle” atop the island for a residence.
Both the island and the Castle became shoreline tourist attractions as people often lined the shore to see the buildings. On the side of the Castle facing the western bank of the Hudson, Bannerman erected a huge sign declaring “Bannerman’s Island Arsenal.”
Sales to both military and civilians sharply declined in the early 20th Century as a result of governmental regulations. That was soon followed by the Pollepel sinking and with it Bannerman left.
In 1967 New York State took possession of the island, now known as Bannerman’s Island. Munitions were removed and many military relics donated to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. Then, in 1968 the island was open to a curious public and tourism there boomed. But that was short-lived.
Less than a year later explosion and fire destroyed the arsenal and the island was off-limits to the public.
Early this century the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation took over and began to once again invite visitors to the island. Unfortunately, in the years that it had been closed it fell victim to vandals, neglect and decay. The smaller castle, the mansion, was in poor shape with some of the walls falling and the internal floors rotted and burned.
A volunteer, non-profit group of concerned citizens began the arduous task of bringing the island back to life. For a while visitation was permitted with arrivals required to wear hard hats.
Slowly Bannerman’s Island was becoming an attraction for eager visitors. In 2015 a public art piece by Melissa McGill was installed around the castle ruins. It consisted of 17 LEDs mounted on metal poles of different heights. When lit for two hours nightly, they are intended to create the appearance of a new constellations.
Work is progressing slowly, but surely. The interior of the mansion can now be seen by visitors arriving on the island by the boat, the Estuary Steward, a motor launch leaving from a dock in Beacon. The interior of the mansion is well underway to regaining much of its original glory.
The Trust is still raising funds to stabilize the island’s structure and educate the public of Bannerman’s value and history. Shows are performed in warm weather that have become a popular attraction. Ost visitors come by the Estuary Steward, but others are permitted to land by private vessels.
From the dock at water’s edge a rather steep path leads visitors to the top of the island. They may enter the mansion but are kept at a safe distance from the gutted Castle/Arsenal. The walls, the only remaining part of the original building, encircle the gutted structure and are supported by strong poles bracing them upright.
The walk around the island on a spring, summer or fall day is a relaxing visit with magnificent views of both banks of the Hudson River. Passing boats slow down and approach so that those on board can take pictures. Photos of the Castle are best seen from the water which offers the best views.
Artist Virginia Donovan and photographer Mary Ann Glass were co-owners of the RiverWinds art gallery in Beacon that was forced to close in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. But they have continued to paint and photograph the island and its relics. Their work may now be seen at the Bannerman Island Gallery at 150 Main Street in Beacon. A quaint shop in a very quaint town. They have dedicated the profits from sale of the photos and paintings to the island’s restoration projects to help defray costs.
While their exhibition will only continue through February 5, the island itself will reopen to the public in May. Both Glass and Donovan also exhibit their works at shows and events in the Hudson Valley and other locations in New York.
For information on island events and exhibitions, contact Laurie Clark at the Bannerman Island Gallery (845) 416-8342.
There are three methods of arrival. As mentioned, some come by private boat while others arrive in Beacon by train. The station is walking distance from the dock. Almost adjacent to the dock is a large parking area for those arriving by auto.
On a warm and sunny spring, summer or fall day families can be seen taking out picnic lunches and relaxing in various locations around the island. They can relax. No longer is there danger of ammunition going off or gun powder exploding. But if you look hard enough and quietly listen, you may just hear the past of Bannerman’s Island.
Photos courtesy of Bannerman’s Island Trust