An Abandoned NY Castle with an Explosive Past (literally): Bannerman Castle

As we continue to move more into fall, I’m reminded of another lovely fall trip my husband and I took to the Hudson River Valley several years ago. Back in 2013, we visited Bannerman Castle, which is situated on Pollepel Island in the middle of the Hudson River. The castle is currently under the care of the Bannerman Castle Trust, and you may only visit today through one of their organized tours or special events. When we visited, we took the boat from Newburgh, NY, which is on the west side of the Hudson River, but you can also catch a boat over from Beacon, NY on the east side if you prefer. Or if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can kayak over instead!

Bannerman Castle
Bannerman Castle, as seen from the boat dock

Bannerman Castle was not a castle in the sense that it was anyone’s home. Instead, it was used by a man named Francis Bannerman to store his massive inventory of weapons, gunpowder, and other generally explosive materials. Bannerman’s father used to buy surplus military supplies at Navy auctions, and Bannerman took over the family business, cashing in at the end of the Civil War and Spanish-American War. He acquired surplus military equipment and supplies that were meant to be sold off for scrap but which Bannerman was able to sell for more. His business started out with a warehouse in Brooklyn before moving into a showroom in Manhattan, and he sold goods through a mail order catalog as well.

Bannerman Castle From Island
Bannerman Castle, as seen from the island

It was after the Spanish-American War when his supply of goods became too large (and too dangerous) to be housed in NYC, and Bannerman needed to seek out a new location to safely house his inventory. His son, David, had suggested the uninhabited Pollepel Island as a good location to build an arsenal, and Bannerman purchased the island in 1900. Construction of the castle began in 1901 and was ongoing up until Bannerman died in 1918.

A couple years later there was a spectacular explosion on the island because, you know, that’s what happens when you store a whole lot of gunpowder and ammunition in one place! This explosion was apparently so spectacular that it sent debris flying all the way to the shores of the river and could be felt several towns away.  And of course, the castle itself sustained a fair amount of damage. Then in 1950, the boat that served the island for ferrying passengers and cargo sunk during a storm, which pretty much brought an end to the island’s use for the Bannerman company. (Some say that old Indian tribes thought that the island was haunted and if it were, maybe that’s why these bad things kept happening. I say, if you stockpile gunpowder and ammunition, you don’t need ghosts for disaster to strike!)

Bannerman Castle and the Hudson River
Bannerman Castle and the Hudson River

Soon after, “all” the ammunition and supplies were removed from the island and the state of New York eventually took over Pollepel Island in 1967. (I say “all” in quotation marks, because our tour guide informed us that there had been some more modern-day discoveries of unexploded ordnance found on the island and in the water immediately around the island!) In 1969, a huge fire tore through the castle and the remains were basically left to deteriorate until the castle and island were reopened to the public in the 1990s after the formation of the Bannerman Castle Trust.

If you would like to take a tour, you will meet your boat in either Newburgh or Beacon, depending on which side of the river you wish to depart from. It’s a fairly short ride to the island, and once you arrive, you’ll be asked to stay with your group throughout your tour, so don’t think you’ll be wandering off on your own to explore! As mentioned above, it’s unclear whether additional hazards remain undetected on the island, and the castle itself is not especially stable, so staying with the group is essential for your safety.

Hudson River from Bannerman's Island
The gorgeous view of the Hudson River from Bannerman’s Island, just below the former residence

Our guide gave us background on Bannerman himself and showed us several photographs of what the island and castle looked like in the past. We wandered throughout part of the island (which is only about 6.5 acres in size), and we enjoyed the beautiful fall foliage and scenic views of the Hudson River Valley. During our visit, we walked over to the old residence on the island, though we were not permitted to go inside. (I understand that there have been recent renovations, but I’m not sure if the current tours now allow for interior access.) We did, however, get to admire the beautiful gardens outside that are maintained by a group of volunteers on behalf of the Trust.

The Bannerman Residence and Gardens
The Bannerman residence and its beautiful gardens

In addition to the guided tours, which take place May through October, the Trust offers several special events, including movie nights and theatrical performances. Apparently, you can host your wedding on the island as well, and I can’t imagine a more beautiful location for an October wedding!

It’s easy to get to Beacon from NYC by taking Metro-North, and you should plan to spend some time in town exploring after your tour. Beacon is absolutely adorable, and if you do nothing else while in town, you should at least take a stroll on Main Street because there are tons of restaurants, cafes, and shops to pop into. We often stop in Beacon when traveling through the Hudson River Valley, particularly because we like the beautiful waterfall by the Roundhouse restaurant. We are also fans of the Two-Way Brewing Company, which is really close to the train station.

Beacon Waterfall
The waterfall in Beacon which runs alongside the Roundhouse restaurant

As you begin to plan your fall weekend activities, I hope you’ll consider visiting Bannerman’s Castle.  The history is fascinating, but it’s also the perfect location to enjoy all the beautiful colors of fall.  And if you make it out there, or if you’ve already been, let me know how what you thought of your visit!

In my next post, we’ll visit another abandoned building–a hospital on an island closer to NYC…

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