On Pollepel Island in Fishkill, NY stands a decaying wonder of the Gilded Age: Bannerman Castle. Not much remains of the once grand architectural complex, now merely a ghost of its grand predecessor, as an explosion, fire, vandalism, and natural disaster reduced it to its current fragile bones.
The Castle’s namesake, Francis Bannerman, was a self-made man. At a young age he began selling scrap metal from ships in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and eventually amassed a fortune selling surplus military goods. Following purchases after the Spanish American War, the business needed a place to safely store a significant amount of volatile black powder. The answer came when one of Bannerman’s son’s, David, stumbled upon Pollepel Island, which the family purchased in 1900.
Bannerman spent the next several years constructing a fairy tale-like oasis, designing the island’s buildings after the European castles encountered on his travels and primarily inspired by those of his homeland, Scotland. He received no professional guidance, thus free to construct his fantasy kingdom according to his vision, complete with turrets, a moat, biblical quotations on the fireplace mantles, a wreath of Scottish thistles, and, of course, a coat of arms.
The most imposing of the remaining structures is what remains of the warehouse:
The family’s summer residence, and the beautiful gardens designed by Mrs. Bannerman, are equally worth seeing:
A closer look:
Bannerman died in 1918, and since then the island’s buildings have fallen victim to unfortunate events. In 1920 an explosion from the stored shells and powder destroyed some of the structures, but the family continued to reside on the island through the 1930s. The family sold the castle to New York State in 1967, with the State hoping to open the island as a park. In 1969, a great fire ruined all of the buildings. While the origin of the fire is unknown, it was partly due to Bannerman’s poor planning, as he used chemically treated wood in construction. Vandals have also contributed to structural instability. The most recent affront to Bannerman’s architectural legacy happened in December of 2009, when portions of the tower and surrounding walls collapsed, and further damage from strong winds occurred in January 2010, leaving what remains in need of support beams.
Tours of the island are available through the Bannerman Castle Trust, accessible by a short trip on the Metro North Hudson Line to Beacon, with the Estuary Steward docked across from the station.
On the way back from my own excursion, I could not help but repeatedly look back, saddened, yet in awe of the beauty of this great ruin, a fading apparition forever imprinted in my memory.
Bannerman, Jane. “Pollepel – An Island Steeped in History”
“Bannerman’s Castle” on Atlas Obscura
Person, Lenore. “Bannerman Island: A Mystery Island on the Hudson.”
Yasinsac, Rob. “Bannerman’s Island Arsenal.”
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