A Scottish castle on the Hudson? Drawn to the hazy beauty of this photo, I was mesmerized by the castle’s classic lines… so reminiscent of centuries-old castles scattered around the British and Scottish moors and highlands, intrigued to know it sat upon American soil. After researching and naming my Mom’s maternal Scots-Irish, I am proud to say that they, too, hold a special place in my heart amongst all my Dutch ancestors.
Photo by Will Van Dorp, Tugster
Think back with me to an earlier day when the adventurous Europeans followed Henry Hudson’s momentous sail north on a river now bearing his name. It was an era of exploration, a prosperous time for the Dutch and their friends as they established a considerable presence in the settling of Nieuw Nederlands… and traveled freely up and down the North River with its invitingly peaceful, and beautiful, sylvan surroundings.
Now envision a fairy-tale castle of Scottish design built upon a solid rock foundation, entirely surrounded by a pristine and placid river as its moat. At times though, depending on the season and storm, the waters become riled and treacherous, perhaps evoking images of an ancient castle set upon the lonely and stormy seacoast of bonnie Scotland. Such a sighting embodies the ambiance of castle life in the Middle Ages… a time of chivalry when knights in shining armor went out to battle, bravely protecting their sovereign and his empire, returning home with honor to win the heart of a certain fair young maiden…
Roughly 50 miles north of New York City lies an island comprising about 5-1/2 or 6-1/2 acres (depending on source) along the eastern shore of the Hudson River as you head north. Pollepel Island is a lush growth of trees, bushes, flowers and gardens, clamoring vines, weeds, bugs, ticks, snakes, and rocky ground. Not surprisingly, the hardy Dutch left their influence on our language and place names all throughout the new world in both New Amsterdam proper and environs of the greater New Netherlands. Naturally this little island, Pollepel (i.e. Dutch for ladle), was named by these hardy early settlers, situated in an area designated as the “Northern Gate” of the Hudson River’s Highlands. Just like in the Old Country, the island’s natural harbor provides the perfect setting for a castle… Bannerman’s Island Arsenal, to be exact. Arsenal, you ask? Yes, a place where knights could well have donned shining armor for their king and perched behind the battlements with all manner of arms.
Photo by Will Van Dorp, Tugster,
Long before there was a castle of dreamy old-world architecture, it was said that Native Americans refused to take up residence on this mound of rock. Believing the island to be haunted, the Indians rarely dared set foot upon it in daylight, if at all, while their enemies flaunted that fact by seeking refuge on the rocky shore…
The hardy mariners who once sailed Hudson’s North River left a legacy of legends and tales of this little island. Washington Irving of Tarrytown, told with skillful imagination the story of “The Storm Ship”, also known as the “Flying Dutchman”. Fear of goblins who dwelt on Pollepel Island was as real as that of their leader, the Heer of Dunderburgh. It was well known that Dunderburgh controlled the winds, those furies which provoked the waters, making safe passage of the Highlands a thing to be envied. With the sinking of the famed “Flying Dutchman” during an especially severe storm, the captain and crew found themselves forever doomed. And, if you should ever find yourself traveling the river near Pollepel in such a storm, listen closely… for in the howling of the winds which whip the sails, you just might hear the captain and his sailors calling for help.
Another legend which early Dutch sailors spoke about was that of Polly Pell, a beautiful young lady rescued from the river’s treacherous ice. Romantically saved from drowning by the quick wit and arms of her beau, she married her rescuer. Such are the dreams of the romantically inclined…
From a more practical perspective, Gen. George Washington used the strategically placed Pollepel Island during the American Revolution in an effort to prevent British ships from sailing north. “Chevaux de frise” were made of large logs with protruding iron spikes which, when sunk upright in the river, were intended to damage ships’ hulls and stop the British from passing through. However, these particular obstructions, set up between the island and Plum Point on the opposite shore, did not deter the resourceful British. They simply sailed with ease past the sunken deterrents in flat-bottomed boats. Washington also planned to establish a military garrison for prisoners-of-war on Pollepel Island, but there is no proof extant that his idea was ever implemented.
According to Jane Bannerman (granddaughter-in-law of the castle’s builder) in “Pollepel - An Island Steeped in History”, the island had just five owners since the American Revolution era: “William Van Wyck of Fishkill, Mary G. Taft of Cornwall, Francis Bannerman VI of Brooklyn, and The Jackson Hole Preserve (Rockefeller Foundation) which donated the island to the people of the State of New York (Hudson Highlands State Park, Taconic Region, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation).”
Francis (Frank) Bannerman VI, the island’s third owner, was born March 24, 1851 in Dundee, Scotland. His ancestor was the first to bear the honored name of Bannerman seven centuries ago. At Bannockburn in 1314, Stirling Castle was held by the English King, Edward II. Besieged by the Scottish army, however, Edward II’s well-trained troops were ultimately defeated in a brutal battle. Less than half the size of England’s army, the successful brave Scotsmen were commanded by the formidable Robert the Bruce, King of Scots. During that battle, Francis VI’s ancestor rescued their Clan Macdonald’s pennant from destruction. In reward, Robert the Bruce is said to have torn a streamer from the Royal ensign and bestowed upon Francis’s ancestor the honor of “bannerman,” the auspicious beginning of the family name.
Fast forward a few centuries and, interestingly, we learn that two years after the February 8, 1690 Schenectady (New York) massacre by the French and Indians, there was a similar massacre in Scotland. Barely escaping the Feb 13, 1692 massacre of the Clan Macdonald at Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands by the Campbells, Francis Bannerman I and others sailed to Ireland. With the family settling in Antrim for the next 150 years or so, it was not until 1845 that Francis Bannerman V returned his branch of the family’s presence to Dundee, Scotland. There, Francis VI was born into this distinguished family. When but a lad of 3 years, his father brought the family across the pond to America’s shores in 1854. Settling in Brooklyn by 1856, the Bannerman family has remained with a well-respected presence.
Francis V earned a living by reselling items in the Brooklyn Navy Yard which he’d obtained cheaply at auctions. A few years later, on joining the Union efforts in the Civil War, his 10-year-old son, Francis VI, left school to help support the family. Searching for scrap items after his hours in a lawyer’s office, young Frank VI also sold newspapers to mariners on ships docked nearby. In the evenings, he trolled or dragged local rivers and searched the streets and alleys, ever on the lookout for profitable scrap items, chains, and other odds and ends, even sections of rope, all eagerly bought by local junkmen.
Returning from war an injured man, Francis V saw how successful his son had become with his scrap business. By realizing that items he sold held more value than ordinary junk, young Frank had made good money. To handle the growing accumulations of items his son had collected, and the military surplus in 1865 purchased at the close of the Civil War, Bannerman’s storehouse was set up on Little Street. Next, a ship-chandlery shop was established on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Returning to school with his father at home, young Francis received a scholarship to Cornell University. However, owing to his father’s disability, family loyalty won out and he declined to pursue the halls of higher education in order to help run the family business.
In 1872, 21-year-old Francis VI took a business trip to Europe. Visiting his grandmother in Ulster, Ireland, he met Helen Boyce whom he married June 8, 1872 in Ballymena. Two of their sons, Francis VII and David Boyce, eventually joined their father in the family business. A third son, Walter Bruce, took a different path by earning his medical degree. Sadly, their only daughter died as an infant. Charles, grandson of Francis VI, married Jane Campbell, a descendant of the ancient Campbells who had attempted to destroy the Macdonald clan (from which massacre Francis I had escaped). Their marriage showed love was the impetus to rise above the ancient rivalry between the families, reminiscent of the Appalachian’s storied Hatfields and McCoys.
Considered the “Father of the Army-Navy Store”, Frank Bannerman VI opened a huge block-long store on Broadway by 1897. Here, his large building of several floors housed untold numbers of military supplies, munitions and uniforms from all around the world. Francis/Frank was the go-to man in equipping soldiers for the Spanish-American War. At that war’s end, the company bought arms from the Spanish government and most of the weapons which the American military had captured from the Spanish. Printing a 300-400 page mail order catalog from the late 19th century through the mid-1960s, collectors found a large array of military surplus and antiquities. As city laws limited Bannerman’s ability to retain his massive holdings within the city proper, a larger facility was sought to store their collection of munitions.
As he relaxed by canoeing the Hudson River around this time, David Bannerman observed an inconspicuous little island. Finding Pollepel Island perfectly suited to their needs, his father, Frank VI, approached the Taft family and purchased the island in 1900. Designing a Scottish-style castle to honor the family’s legacy, they built an arsenal to store their vast munitions supplies, with a smaller castle providing a family residence. On the side of the castle facing the Hudson River, “Bannerman’s Island Arsenal” is embedded in the castle façade, clearly informing all passersby of its purpose to this day.
As the largest collector of munitions in the world, buying and selling to many nations, including Japan during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905,and to private citizens like you and me, even Buffalo Bill Cody, military memorabilia collectors, theatrical establishments, and artists needing props, Mr. Francis Bannerman VI held an in-depth knowledge of the military supplies and ordnance in his possession. But, not being a man of greed, he refused to arm revolutionaries and returned their money on learning their intention. At the opening of World War I, he reportedly shipped 8,000 saddles to the French Army and delivered thousands of rifles and ammunition to the British at no cost.
Though extremely successful selling munitions, Francis/Frank Bannerman VI considered himself a kind and generous man, “a man of peace”. It was his intention that such a vast collection of arms as his would eventually be considered “The Museum of the Lost Arts.” Energetic and devoted to his church and public service, he also taught a boys’ Sunday School class. He enjoyed bringing friends to the island to experience his family’s hospitality. His wife, Helen, who loved to garden, had paths and terraces constructed throughout the property. Even today, tour guides point out the many flowers and shrubs she planted which have survived the decades, the beauty of which enhance the antiquity of the castle ruins.
With the death of Francis Bannerman VI on November 26, 1918 at age 64, building on the island stopped and many setbacks seemed to befall his estate. Two years later, an explosion of 200 tons of stored shells and powder destroyed part of the castle. With State and federal laws controlling the sale of munitions to civilians, sales began to plunge for Bannerman’s Arsenal. Family continued to reside in the smaller castle on the island into the 1930s; but, for the sake of their customers, sold their goods more conveniently from a warehouse in Blue Point, Long Island into the 1970s. In 1950, a pall fell over the island and its castle when the ferry “Pollepel” (named for the island it served) sank in a storm. Then, when the island’s caretaker retired in 1957, Bannerman’s island remained abandoned and untended for years.
Frank VI’s grandson, Charles Bannerman, wisely predicted in 1962 that “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.”
Ultimately, New York State bought the island and its buildings in 1967 after all military supplies had been removed, and tours of the island and castle commenced in 1968. Unfortunately, a devasting fire on August 8, 1969 destroyed the Arsenal along with its walls, floors and roofs making the island unsafe, and it was closed to the public. Though the castle now sits in ruins, much of the exterior walls are still standing, accented with climbing ivy, and held up in the weakest sections by supports. Since virtually all interior floors and walls were destroyed by fire, “vandalism, trespass, neglect and decay” have continued taking their toll over the decades.
In more recent years, the island once again made headlines with a tragic story. On April 19, 2015, Angelika Graswald and her fiancée, Vincent Viafore, kayaked to Bannerman’s Castle Island. Attempting to return from their outing in rough waters, Viafore’s kayak took on water and overturned, resulting in his drowning. Graswald, charged with Viafore’s murder, admitted to removing the drain plug. Arraigned in Goshen, Orange County, NY, a plea deal was later reached before the case went to trial. Pleading guilty to a lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide, she was released from prison not long after, having duly served the time of her reduced sentence.
Few people know and remember “Bannerman’s Island” during its glorious past like Jane Bannerman (wife of Charles, Francis VI’s grandson). Assisting The Bannerman’s Castle Trust and the Taconic Park Commission to repair the buildings, Jane has noted, “…it all comes down to money, and if they don’t hurry up, it’ll all fall down. Every winter brings more destruction.” Unsafe conditions on and around the island are due to both underwater and land hazards, not to mention unstable castle walls. Due to these conditions, it is advised you do not attempt to visit the island on your own.
The Bannerman’s Castle Trust has initiated “hard hat” tours along with other entertainment venues. By making island visits possible, it is the Trust’s hope they will be able to restore the castle, smaller castle home, and gardens for the public to enjoy more fully. In the interest of preserving the rich history of this Scottish Castle on a small island in the Hudson River, we hope The Bannermans’ Castle Trust is successful in its restoration endeavors.
Hudson River Cruises advertise a tour from Newburgh Landing: “Ruins of a 19th century castle on Bannerman’s Island can be seen on special guided history and walking tours departing from Newburgh Landing and Beacon.” For information on 2-1/2 hour guided tours held May through October call: 845-220-2120 or 845-782-0685.
With my own maternal Scots-Irish McNeill and Caldwell heritage, I was intrigued by the photos of such an old-world castle built on a small, seemingly insignificant island. The fairy-tale ambiance of this Scottish castle stands out, visible by boat and train, amidst the New Netherlands’ Dutch influence up and down the Hudson River. I hope someday to take a guided tour on Pollepel Island and see Bannerman’s Castle; but, for now, the photos and articles will have to do.
Many thanks to friend Will Van Dorp who initially piqued my interest by posting his photos and synopsis of the island, castle, and its environs on his blog, Tugster:
Hudson Downbound 18b, April 12, 2018 - Scroll down to photo of Bannerman’s Castle which prompted my story.
There is so much more in-depth reading and photography from many websites, but I referred to the following in my research:
FRANCIS BANNERMAN, the noted merchant and authority on war weapons
Pollepel – An Island Steeped in History by Jane Bannerman
Bannerman’s Island Arsenal, Historic Images – Old Photos/Postcards