After riding the Amtrak rails up and down the east side of the Hudson for decades, wondering about the wreck of a place on its own little island midstream, I got to see it close up. I fortified myself with the best croissant I’ve ever had, from Beacon Bread Company – I think it contained a full pound of butter that now I contain – I set off to see Bannerman’s Castle.
The island floats like a mirage in the middle of the Hudson Highlands, with Storm King on the west side and Breakneck Ridge on the east.
Do not attempt to climb Breakneck Ridge unless you are part mountain goat, it ascends nearly vertically to a summit that is very, very far up in the clouds.
I never thought you could actually go to the island, that I was not permitted, and I was not enough of a bandit to take a canoe out there under the cover of night. But I thought it was the real thing, after reading about the island in Rob Yasinsac’s Hudson Valley Ruins: Forgotten Landmarks of an American Landscape (2006). I knew Rob from when I was researching the Philipse family for The Women of the House, and he was working as an intrepeter at Philipseburg Manor – he had the perfect long ponytail to go with his Colonial attire. If he said it was a worthwhile “ruin,” surely it was.
So now our little tourist trip was crossing the water and the ruin came into view.
Right on time – the skipper bragged he had been “accused of being a Swiss clock.” The steward, Moose, told tales about a 14-foot-long sturgeon that had recently been detected with sonar in the river, and recalled the bad old days when the water was contaminated by PCBs and all the fish “tasted of oil.” The river was glass only an hour ago, he said, and now it was choppy.
So, it’s actually called Polipel Island, we learn from Rowan, our docent, a casual young woman with Billie Eillish-tinted locks. Dutch sailors, afraid of the Storm King if they passed the area without an offering, threw rookie sailors over board and picked them up on the way back, as if with a pot ladle. Polipel is pot ladle in Dutch.
This is only Rowan’s fourth tour, and she’s doing pretty well. The State owns the island now, and the head of the Bannerman Castle Trust trusted that Rowan was up to the task. The island is swarming with sightseers and when I hear the booming tones of a more seasoned guide, mansplaining all the way, I think we lucked out with Rowan.
We listened and learned. There were a lot of people in the Bannerman line. After the family bought the island, for $1,600, Bannerman the younger hauled things out of the drink – scrap metal from the Revolution, and cotton rope, which could be refashioned as paper. His father, inspired, decided to go into the military surplus business, and in 1900 they set up shop at 501 Broadway in lower Manhattan. It was such a success that the store was bursting at the seams, and they were encouraged to move their dangerous products elsewhere. Luckily they had an island on which to build a munitions depot, and the son was an aspiring architect who wanted to connect with his Scottish roots. Hence the faux Gaelic style. They could easily put on The Scottish Play here.
Are we bored yet? For many people, the real draw of Bannerman’s Castle is that all that munitions shit occasionally blew sky high. I just learned that loud noises connect with the pleasure centers in the brain.
Some of the walls were apparently reinforced by surplus bayonets from the Civil War. I just wanted to wander around but we were cautioned not to stray from the trails. There was in fact an element of ruin in one building we could go in.
It reminded me of a really fantastic ruin, the abandoned hospital at Ellis Island, which actually still has all kinds of untouched haunted things, such as operating theaters and cadaver drawers. Here there was plenty of camera clicking.
There did exist some objects that bore the patina of memory.
The paths we followed had honeysuckle, rock harlequin and bayberry, the latter of which requires salinity to survive. Since the Hudson is actually an estuary with both salt and fresh water, this makes sense.
Try to imagine a time when the Bannermans and their servants crossed the frozen Hudson to get provisions in Beacon, a time when the bricks used in constructing the castle were made in the brick factories lining the shores, when shad fishing universally meant springtime. In those days the train ran north and south the same as it does today, and squarely across the façade of Bannerman’s munitions castle was a colossal advertisements with letters four and a half feet tall, an ad about as big as any billboard today.
Bannermans’ Island Arsenal. Note the proper placement of the apostrophe.
Hudson Valley Ruins features the perfect line about immersing yourself in days gone by: Linger here amid the beautiful foolishness of things. That’s an inscription from the ruin of a house in the Catskill Mountains. Beautiful foolishness just about captures the hobby horse of Bannerman’s Island, what we who relish ruins seek. Once upon a time, affluent people, connoisseurs, constructed their own Roman ruins to wander through in the moonlight. At Bannerman’s I kind of wished I had braved the tide and gone there before it was open to all.