Bannerman Castle is one of those off-the-beaten path attractions in New York that I’ve always wanted to visit but never got around to. After the July 4th celebrations were done, my husband and I met up with Marzio and Andrei at a local haunt for breakfast. We picked up the conversation from the night before about the nature of the universe and the meaning of life–I mean what else do you talk about after a heavy day of drinking right? With the answer to life still a mystery, we were reluctant to part ways even after several hours of mulling over questions and BS’ing over chai lattes. That’s when the plan hatched, “Why don’t we go to Bannerman’s Castle?” Immediately I called the tour company and got us seats on the 11 o’ clock boat from Newburgh.
I had read a bit about the history of Bannerman Castle and knew it was a munitions depot, but the tour was really insightful. I appreciate that the New York Park and Recreation Department focuses on the castle’s history rather than on its slow, but steady death. The grandeur, dilapidation, and limited accessibility of the Castle make it a very tempting target for vandals who routinely destroy what remains.
Pollepel Island was a hub of prostitution, drinking and a hotspot for wild activity outside of NYC. Bannerman purchased the island for $600 from the Taft family in 1900 under the conditions that no drinking would take place. After blowing up the cliffs to make way for a foundation, he began construction of the castle. He took his inspiration from a fortress in Antwerp that I actually visited earlier this year. Small world.
It was a very good thing that the city of New York ousted Bannerman and his load of dynamite from Manhattan because as it turned out, the very munitions he made money off of ruined him and his castle. Typical Scottsman that he was, Francis Bannerman, was very cheap. He didn’t safeguard any of his buildings, never bothered to hire a proper architect, and pretty much did whatever he wanted on Pollepel island with very little regard to the safety of his workers or his munitions.
Everything he used to build was surplus, bought very cheap or reused, including the floors of the castle which for years lined the barges soaked in oil. It’s not surprising that twenty years after its construction was complete, 200 tons of dynamite blew up the whole building, injuring his family and several workers. Several fires broke out through the years, making the castle obsolete as a warehouse. The most significant fire occurred in 1969 and raged out of control for days because of the oil-soaked plank floors. The island has had a tempestuous history, made worse by Bannerman’s assumption that dynamite could solve everything. He blew up the only spring on the island that could provide water for two people per day by blasting a bigger hole as an example.
Oddly enough, Bannerman always saw himself as a pacifist in spite of dealing in munitions. He was staunchly religious, going as far as to emblazon bible verse inside all the rooms of his residence alongside cannon ball encrusted walls.
We left the tour somewhat amazed that anything remains considering the shoddy building methods and the lack of care Bannerman put into building this fanciful castle. In 2008 half of the facade along with the East facing wall collapsed, making it more a folly than a castle.
A number of authors have used Pollepel island in their works and I can see why. It’s quite beautiful. I love ruins so I really enjoyed myself, but admit that cooler weather would have been preferable. By the end of the tour all of us were wishing we could jump in the Hudson for a swim.