There are no Princesses in this story, no damsel in distress that lowers her ridiculously long hair from the tower for a knight to climb into bed with her. While it might look like a medieval European storybook setting, you’re looking at Bannerman’s Castle on Pollepel Island, 50 miles North from the hustle and bustle of New York City.
More fitting for an evil villain than a Princess, the only real inhabitants of this castle were guns and dangerous explosives. The elaborate structure that wouldn’t look out of place in a Lord of the Rings filmset, began its story in 1901 as a (very fancy) military surplus warehouse.
Francis Bannerman VI, a Scottish American had made a name for himself buying and selling surplus military equipment at the close of the American Civil War. By the late 1890s however, he had almost outgrown his New York City storerooms after acquiring almost 90% of the military equipment abandoned by the Spanish in their retreat from the Spanish American-War. Housing up to thirty million explosive cartridges in the heart of New York City didn’t sit too well with the neighbours either. But if Bannerman’s business was to be exiled from the big apple, he was going to do it in style.
The 6½ acre island on the Hudson River was purchased in 1900 and construction of the arsenal designed by Bannerman began. Of course, he couldn’t resist building his only little fortress for himself and guests, another smaller castle clearly visible from the shore which he decorated with guns from his own collection. Taking full advantage of his immense walls, Bannerman had his builders cast “Bannerman’s Island Arsenal” into the side of the castle to boost advertising and keep up appearances out on the Hudson River.
Taken during construction of the arsenal complex in 1905. Courtesy of the Churchill / Bannerman Family via the Bannerman Castle Trust Inc
Photo of the castle on July 4, 1961. Photo by Douglas Labounty.
The businessman passed away in 1918 and ongoing construction on the island finally came to an end. It was around this time that things began to go very downhill for the castle. Here’s the unfortunate timeline of events that might give you an idea why:
1920 – 200 tons of shells and powder explode in an ancillary structure, destroying a portion of the complex
1950 – The Bannerman Arsenal’s own ferryboat smashes into the island during a storm and explodes on impact, causing massive damage to the buildings. Business had been declining for the arsenal for several decades now and following the accident, the island is abandoned.
1969 – A year after the New York State purchases the island and begins giving tours of the old arsenal, a fire devastates the castle. The roofs and floors are destroyed and the island is placed off-limits to the public.
2009 – After decades of vandalism, trespassing, neglect and decay, 30-40 percent of the structure’s front wall and about half of the east wall collapse.
Before the 2009 collapse (photo by Thom Johnson):
Things seem to be looking up for Bannerman’s castle today however, with its very own trust working to raise money for a project to stabilise the remaining structure. In cooperation with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, the trust has also once again managed to open up the island to the public.
Every third Sunday from May through October, you can take special self-guided tours and bring a picnic to eat lunch on the island, followed up by a performance from local New York musicians with the castle as your backdrop. Historians are also on hand to answer questions about the island. Kayak tours are also available and, wait for it– you can even have your very own off-beat wedding on Bannerman’s Island.