Bannerman's - The Haunted Isle
by Craig Poole
Among the hundreds of rivers and streams crisscrossing America, few can compare with the legend-laden, geologically diverse Hudson River. The homeland of Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane, the Hudson surges high out of the Adirondack Mountains, flowing unchecked to the sea.
The scene of early Dutch and English settlements, the river has served as an indispensable pathway for moving people and goods into the North American interior since the early days of colonial exploration and settlement. The impetus for it's own school of art, the Hudson seems to have a power of it's own, drawing people of all walks of life to it's shores.
A quote from William G. Scheller in the Greenway Council's "Report to the people of the Hudson River Valley, the Governor and the Legislature of New York State," describes the river best . . . "Broad, silent and powerful, the Hudson flows through time as easily as through the counties of eastern New York State, and in the mind's eye it can float a tall Dutch ship as easily as a little green canoe."
" Indians believed the island to be haunted and would not set foot ... ! "
Singularly unique among the Hudson's lavish and varied features, Pollepel Island perches between the northern reaches of the Highlands and Newburgh Bay. A craggy, thickly shrubbed hill now commonly referred to as Bannerman's, the island has been the subject of legend and wild rumors since earliest times.
Some Indian tribes believed it haunted and refused to set foot on it, thus it became a place of refuge to escape attacks. Other tribes routinely visited with the sun, using it's 115 foot high natural lookout to ambush unwary river travelers, but avoiding the island after dark.
Extensive excavations have revealed well developed, permanent Indian encampments on both banks of the river opposite the Island but very few artifacts have been found on the Island itself, perhaps indicating an early impression of the island's inhospitable nature.
While the early Dutch explorers of the region had their tales and legends of the surrounding land, the later settlers and sailors lived in mortal terror of the Heer of Dunderberg, a fiend and his goblins who inhabited the Highlands and made themselves known by the treacherous winds that blew between and around the mountains.
According to legend, the northern limits of their jurisdiction was Pollepel Island - from there north, sailing was safe and easy. New sailors to the river, therefore were inoculated against these evil sprits by being doused in the river as their boats passed Pollepel, the less superstitious rigged their masts without a rake, perpendicular to the deck, so they could shorten sail quickly in the gusty storms of the area.
" The shouts of the long-dead captain can be heard during storms ! "
During the black squalls that came in the spring, the old rivermen claimed to hear the shouted orders of the long-dead Captain of the "Flying Dutchman", which was sunk on the flats south of the Island in the early eighteenth century.
Lying in a strategic spot on the river, the Island figured prominently during the revolutionary war. The British calculated that if they could control the river they could cut the colonies in half and end the rebellion.
As the British slowly invaded northwards, the Americans, with varying degrees of success, blockaded the Highlands to prevent further movement into the interior.
Several miles south of the Island, the rebels erected a great chain boom, stretching between what is now West Point and Constitution Island. Remnants of this chain can still be seen at the U.S. Military Academy Museum at West Point.
Chains set !! Underwater obstructions meant to impale ships !
Further upstream, a Chevaux de Frise, an underwater obstruction designed to impale and sink approaching vessels was constructed on the west bank between Pollepel and Plum Point. Unfortunately, the British were able to pass these defenses with ease and there are conflicting reports that British loyalists partly dismantled the obstructions and/or revealed the passage left open for river traffic.
In 1781, proposals were made and approved by General George Washington to build a military prison and to store munitions on the Island. While construction was started, there is little evidence that the prison was ever used or even completed, although it's reported that Hessian soldiers were imprisoned there and after the war were offered land to settle in Pennsylvania.
After the revolutionary war, the Island was used as a local fisherman's headquarters and as a picnic, swimming and camping spot for the neighboring villagers.
In 1888, Mr. Thomas Taft, of tea-totaler fame, purchased the island to prevents its use as an operations base for the black market liquor trade; then in 1900, the firm of Francis Bannerman and Sons purchased the island, thinking it an isolated place and ideal for the storage of their large artillery stock.
Bannerman purchased the island for storage of artillery stock !!
Bannerman's was founded in 1865 at the close of the civil war by Francis Bannerman, then only 14 years old. Born in Dundee, Scotland, his family immigrated to this country and settled in Brooklyn, NY, when he was three.
As a child, young Frank would accompany his father, a buyer of chandlery goods, to navy auctions. When his father joined the Union Army during the civil war, school-age Frank began a business of collecting all types of scrap. When the war ended, Frank began purchasing quantities of surplus military equipment at government auctions. He continued to expand and diversify his business until he became known as an international armorer.
After the Spanish-American War, among the surplus acquired was 90% of the captured equipment and ammunition from Havana, Cuba, which the New York City government, wisely would not permit to be stored within the city limits. Early in 1900, searching for a safe and secure storage space, Pollepel Island was bought from the Taft's. A student and collector of antiquity, Francis Bannerman conceived and drew plans for a large storehouse with waterfront landings and a family house on top of the hill, both to be built in the style of an old Scottish castle.
Docks & breakwaters were formed by sinking old barges with stone !!
Following construction of the Number 1 storehouse on the north side of the Island, docks and breakwaters were formed by sinking old barges with stones, and after they settled, covering them with concrete. Small crenelated towers were placed at the corners, forming protected entrances to the harbor.
From 1901 until his death in 1918, Francis Bannerman continued construction. Under his personal supervision the Island structures grew to include 3 storehouses, a personal residence, workshops, residence apartments for the workmen, a powder house, an ice house, a huge garden walkway, plus docks, turrets and towers, all surrounded by strategically located cannon emplacements and all built to elaborate detail and without professional assistance from architects, engineers or contractors.
Though never actually completed to Mr. Bannermans specifications, the Island became a bit of Scotland, seemingly plucked out the Scottish Highlands and deposited on a bare bit of rock mid-river. Arriving at the main landing, visitors climbed a steep walk between the arsenal, workshop and superintendent's building, crossed over a drawbridge and passed beneath an arch with portcullis and coat of arms. Past the storehouse on the north side, terraces were laid out for gardens. At the top of the winding path, bordered by shrubs and tiny hillside gardens, was the Bannerman residence, overlooking it all.
" Tragedy hits the islands - tremendous explosions, Lightning ... ! "
Incidents concerning the Island in the last century are many and mostly tragic: The cannon being tested against the mountain jumped and its shell went over the mountain and through a nearby barn. The workman melting scrap put live ammunition in the melting pot with resultant disaster. The castle was often known to have as many as fifteen flags flying about it; however, lightning struck down the flag poles so frequently that it became impractical to replace more than a few of them. Then, on a hot august day in 1920, a tremendous explosion wrecked the arsenal. Two hundred pounds of powder and shells stored in a powder house exploded, heaving a barrage of brick, munitions and equipment high into the summer sky. A twenty five foot section of high stone wall was blown to the mainland, blocking the New York Central railroad tracks.
The castle was considerably damaged, while the tower, along with a corner of the Island itself, were blown far out into the river. Cities and villages along the river between Hudson and Peekskill were shaken by the explosion and hundreds of window panes were smashed.
" The final blow to the island .. ! "
Further incidents were to come; in 1950, a tremendous storm wrecked the "Pollepel" , which had served the island as a freight and passenger boat for fifty years. The final blow was a fire and explosion on the island in August 1969. Even though the Island was now deserted, having been sold to the state the previous year, officials speculated that the explosions and accompanying fifty foot high flames could only have been the result of old shells still lost in the debris. The fire was allowed to burn itself out, inflicting serious structural damage to the castle interior and leaving the wreck that is visible today.
Now-a-days, as the signs attest, 8annenman's is Closed to the public due to extremely hazardous conditions; nevertheless, it's spooky visage and macabre past continue to draw the curious like a magnet, or perhaps like a moth to the flame.
The best way to see the island - UP CLOSE !!
The best way to see the Island up close, without actually landing is from a small hand powered vessel (canoe or kayak). Gliding soundlessly beneath the arched eastern gate into the breakwater, you get your first really closeup view of the castle and grounds. Very little is left of the original breakwater fortifications. Remnants of ruined bulkheads lie scant inches beneath the water, so you must paddle slowly and carefully through the debris laden harbor.
The crenelated towers at the far corners still stand, but who knows for how much longer. Of the castle itself, nothing remains but a towering saga of rack and ruin, a crumbling concrete and twisted metal carcass. Even with the interior long gone, the exterior walls provide a stark reminder of the elaborate details that went into construction.
Barely protruding behind years of dense thicket, the arched gate is only partially visible, as is the owner' s residence high atop the hillside.
The drawbridge and portcullis are long gone; the workshops, residences and other buildings strewn, in bits and pieces about the Island and surrounding waters. Sitting quietly, gently rocking in the languid waters, the past nudges a little closer, just peering over your shoulder.
Is this really a 'place where man does not belong ?'
A distinct sensation, given over by whatever force holds sway, that 'here' you are not welcome, Perhaps, given the long and tragic history of the Island, that was pre-ordained. Maybe the Island, and not the towering mountains of the region, are home to the Heer of Dunderberg and his goblin friends. Just maybe, the series of violent incidents were really a warning, that this is a place where man does not belong.
. . . "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 Highlands, will take their toll on some of the turrets and towers, and perhaps eventually the castle itself; but the little island will always have its place in history and will be forever, we hope, a jewel in its Highland setting." - Francis Bannerman and Sons.
Craig Poole formerly the president of the The Hudson River Watertrail Association. He now is the active secretary and membership chairperson. The Hudson River Watertrail provides the best guide available to paddling in the NY area and it's free with membership.
Mr. Poole also maintains the NYC kayaker mailing list - a dynamic resource available to the sea kayaker.
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