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The Bannerman Island Arsenal on the Hudson

Just two hours north of New York City, in Beacon, sits an imposing, mysterious structure. The ruins of an ancient Medeival style castle can be found on an island just a thousand feet off the shores of the Hudson River. Emblazoned on the crumbling walls of the island fortress are the works BANNERMAN’S ARSENAL.

The island on which the castle sits is officially known as Pollepel Island, and has been the subject of local legends dating back to the 1600’s. Some

local Indian tribes believed the island to be haunted, so the land became a sort of safe haven for those early Dutch settlers seeking refuge from the occasionally hostile natives.

The castle was built in the years from 1901 to 1908 to warehouse the weapons of Francis Bannerman VI, an arms dealer, who had an entire estate on the island. Francis, or Frank, was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1857 and came to the United States at the age of three. He began collecting and selling scrap from the shores of his Brooklyn home at a young age and soon had developed a thriving business.

After the Civil War, Bannerman began buying Army surplus stock at government auctions. Following the Spanish-American War, he purchased ninety percent of the army’s decommissioned weapons and over thirty million rounds of ammunition. He was the first businessman to see the value in army surplus, and is often referred to as the “Father of the Army and Navy Store.” He supposedly even sold a warship to a South American nation embroiled in revolution. When the City of New York would no longer allow him to store his vast cache of weapons within the city’s limits, Frank moved his business up the Hudson and built his isolated fortress, which was reminiscent of a castle one might see in Frank’s Scottish home.

 

Francis Bannerman was regarded as a bit of an oddball. He designed every building on the property himself, refusing to give any of them a single right angle. According to Jane Bannerman, Frank’s granddaughter-in-law, “Although Frank Bannerman was a munitions dealer, he titled himself to be a man of peace. He wrote in his catalogues that he hoped that his collection of arms would someday be known as ‘The Museum of the Lost Arts.’”

Due to suspicions that Bannerman was dealing with the enemy during World War I, troops were stationed on his island until 1918. This broke the patriotic Bannerman’s heart, and he died shortly after the troops’ exit at the end of the war. His family continued the business into the 1970’s, but

based it out of a warehouse in Long Island instead of the famous island arsenal.

Bannerman’s estate was completely abandoned by the early 1960’s, and his family gave it to the state of New York for a small sum in 1967. On August 8, 1969 a fire ravaged the arsenal, leaving it in its present ruined state.

In 1962, five years before the island was sold to the Taconic Park Commission, and seven years before fire partially destroyed the castle, Frank Bannerman’s grandson Charles wrote prophetically of the fate of his family’s island fortress:

"No one can tell what associations and incidents will involve the island in the future. Time, the elements, and maybe even the goblins of the island will take their toll of some of the turrets and towers, and perhaps eventually the castle itself, but the little island will always have its place in history and in legend and will be forever a jewel in its Hudson Highland setting."

The island is only accessible by boat, although this is difficult, as swift currents around the area can sweep small vessels away easily. It is currently a no trespassing area, and is monitored by video surveillance.

A non-profit group called The Bannerman Castle Trust, Inc. is currently seeking to preserve and restore the site through their "Friends" organization for Bannerman Castle on Pollepel Island. Jane Bannerman is a member of group’s Board of Directors.

According to their mission statement, the Trust is “dedicated to bringing together the resources and funding to stabilize the buildings on Pollepel Island. The Trust aims to raise awareness and educate the public and government organizations on the value and history of the island. The Trust aims to raise the funds for preparing the island, creating a master plan and eventually stabilizing of the island structures. The Trust is working to make the island safe for volunteers to work on the island and eventually safe for the public to enjoy the island as an educational, cultural, historical and recreational facility promoting heritage tourism in the Hudson Valley.”

If you’d like to become a "Friend of the Castle," you can join the preservation efforts by writing to the Bannerman Castle Trust, Inc., P.O. Box 843, Glenham. NY 12527-0843.

A Visit to the Island Arsenal

It’s been a while since I was at Bannerman’s, I think our visit was in 1995 or so. We canoed out to the island after dragging the boat across the rail tracks. What impressed me about the island was the incredibly thick vegetation. I had just gotten back from Costa Rica a few months before, and the island reminded me of the Central American rain forests, with the huge variety and quantity of plants. And it was really hot.

The island itself is quite beautiful. We hiked around a bit after shooting the ruins. The place had a peaceful quiet, like most ruins, broken only by the fan boats that were messing around on the Hudson in the afternoon. They were really loud and we were worried they would attract the attention of the authorities, since we weren’t supposed to be on the island.  –Shaun O’Boyle

You can read about all of New York’s other haunted hotspots and ghostly gathering places in Weird New York.

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