October 26, 2008

The Hudson River's Only Castle on an Island

I guess I always assumed the castle I saw on a tiny, rocky island in the middle of the Hudson River - usually from the Amtrak or the Metro-North - was as unreachable as the typhoid hospital on North Brother Island. Crumbling, forbidding, mysterious.

But earlier this year, Edith discovered that the castle - in fact, Bannerman Castle - was indeed accessible via Hudson Valley Outfitters' kayak trips to Pollepel Island! It was an explorer's dream come true, but in September when we were scheduled to go, our trip was cancelled because of danger of land mines. Or so they told us.

I was devastated, but relieved that I wouldn't have to haul my overweight body three miles in a kayak to get to the island from Cold Spring, and again three miles to return.

Somehow by chance, last week we found out that Hudson River Adventures had one remaining boat cruise to Pollepel for the year, replete with hard hat tour of the castle grounds, just like we had missed out on a month prior. That last tour was today.

We took the Metro-North to Beacon, followed by a half hour boat ride to the island. I recalled the ferry we took to Alcatraz, the way the forboding structure loomed against the skyline, and I couldn't quite believe I was getting this close to the castle I'd previously only seen from the train tracks along the water.

The castle, of course, isn't really a castle, but it was built to look like one. Not unlike Eastern State Penitentiary, even in the early 20th century the image of the castle was one that Americans were both fascinated with and terrified by. Bannerman Castle was built in the style of a Scottish castle, except with bricks and only a concrete overlay, and with wooden floorboards that ultimately made it tragically susceptible to a fire in 1969. And instead of being used to protect the waterways of New York State, it was used as a warehouse for military surplus items to be sold - any items, from hats to musical instruments to cannons to unexploded ordnances (hence the land mine danger which closed the island for months).

The lodgeThe island must've been a beautiful place when the Bannerman family actually lived there, in the "lodge" residence that once housed a fireplace and a sun porch. There are gardens that are being restored, with a labyrinth of paths leading around the massive grounds, most of which have been cleared of the forsythia and lilac overgrowth that covered them for the last several decades. We followed one treacherous path down to the castle which felt unsafe not only for us, but for the retiree behind us walking with a cane. In fact, we got a lot closer to the buildings than I thought we would, though still not inside because of the imminent danger of collapse or of random pieces of rusted metal falling on our heads.

At one point early on in our tour, we stumbled on some young guys not wearing hard hats, and immediately I knew they weren't part of any official group. Our tour guide asked them, "How did you get here?" and they answered, "On a boat." After our guide scoffed and sized them up as quickly as I did, he tried to shoo them off the island, but he didn't seem that intimidating to me. They should have feared fines or imprisonment, but instead they basically got a "scram" and made it out without a scratch.

Don't get me wrong, I love urban exploration, and I love to read about explorers' illicit visits to ruins and see their incredible photographs. But unfortunately, a lot of the people who do that contribute to the accelerated disintegration of these structures, and, sadly, often steal some of the historic relics from the sites (like Scottish emblems and prismatic glass, in the case of Bannerman).

Pollepel Island, once just a lump of rocks in the middle of the river, actually became quite whimsical under Bannerman's influence, with every sloping hill and staircase receiving its own cute name and making sure there's always a stone seat when you need to take a rest. Sure, lots of the compound was utilitarian as well - an outhouse, cisterns, warehouses - but the island has somehow managed to retain its character, or perhaps the character of Frank Bannerman, its owner, who could never get the name of the island officially changed to Bannerman but labelled everything with his name including the castle, which still reads "Bannerman Island Arsenal." He did such a good job self-marketing that no one really knows that "Bannerman Island" isn't the name of that piece of land.

Like many of the sites I visit, there has been a trust formed to preserve and educate, and most importantly to raise money for stabilization and restoration. The tour I took today was inexpensive for the amount of regret it swept out of my soul, and at only $30 makes a great bizarre day trip from NYC for anybody who's feeling a bit bored. But unfortunately people will have to wait til spring in order to see it first-hand like we did today. Let's hope the winter isn't too hard on the buildings and doesn't cause more collapse.

Further Reading/Photos:
Hudson Valley Ruins: Rob Yasinsac's photos
The New York Times: Kayakers Among the Ruins
Suckapants Blog

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