Field Trip to Pollepel Island aka (Inaccurately) Bannerman's Island

Bannerman’s Castle.  Photo by Paula Butler

Bannerman’s Castle. Photo by Paula Butler

Surrounded by the profound beauty of the Hudson River Highlands, the RiverU class of 2014, joined by Timothy Sugrue Ph.D., President and Chief Executive Officer of Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries,  boarded The Estuary Steward, TheBannerman Castle Trust‘s vessel and headed for Pollepel Island on what is to be our final “voyage”  of the summer session.

Headed for the Bannerman tour boat.  Photo by Paula Butler

Headed for the Bannerman tour boat. Photo by Paula Butler

The mood was cheerful as students (and Professor Shane Rogers) snapped“selfies” and group photos, less to document the trip but rather, I suspect, to document friendships that have developed over the past few weeks as the end of class draws near.

Bannerman’s Island, officially known as Pollepel Island, sits in the middle of the Hudson River just south of the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge at an area referred to as the “Northern Gate” of the Hudson Highlands .   As we approach the island an empty and crumbling shell of a once majestic castle looms before us as the main feature on this small, mostly rocky island.  The castle,  an abandoned military surplus warehouse, was built by a New York City businessman names Francis Bannerman and became known as Bannerman’s Castle.

Bannerman residence.  Photo by Paula Butler

Bannerman residence. Photo by Paula Butler

Our tour guide, Neil Caplan, Executive Director of The Bannerman Castle Trust,  began the tour with a discussion ofthe early legends, of which there were several dating back to the 1600’s, that may (or may not have) played a role in the origins of the official name of the island.  Was the name derived from a Native American translation, the name of a cactus alleged to have grown on the island, or was the island named after a Dutch girl (Poly Pell) who after falling through the ice managed to get ashore on the island?  There is no documentation to support any of these legends leaving it up to each visitor to the island to imagine his or her own story.

Mr. Caplan explained the significant role that the island played in the American revolution when a chainwith metal spikes, extending underwater from the east side of the island to the east bank of the Hudson at Plumb Point, was instrumental in thwarting theBritish advance up the Hudson River.

The story of Bannerman’s castle began with Francis Bannermanhimself who purchased the island in November of 1900 and in 1901began to build the castle for use as a facility for the safe storage of hismilitary surplus munitions fromone of his warehouses in New York City.  A smaller scale castle on top of the island was constructed as a residence for the family .  Mr. Bannerman was an avid collector of scrap metal andto the extent possible used (re-purposed or recycled) this metal in the construction of both castles.  Additionally he re-purposed as much wood as could be salvaged from old barges for wooden floors throughout the castles.

Departing Pollepel Island.  Photo by Paula Butler

Departing Pollepel Island. Photo by Paula Butler

Construction on the “castles” ceased with Bannerman’ s death in 1918.  In 1920 much of the complex structure was destroyed when tons of stored munitions exploded with such force that some of the debris was blown onto the mainland.  The islandand the buildings remained esentially vacant from that point on.

In 1967 New York State purchased the island and in 1968 began giving tours.  The Arsenal was destroyed by fire In 1969 that burned for 3 days mostly because the area is remote and the floorsin the building had been made with salvaged creosote treated wood.  The island was then placed off limits to the public.  Today Bannerman’sIsland Arsenal is on the U.S. National Register of Historic places,  the castle is owned by New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the structures are mostly in ruins.

In 1993 the Bannerman Castle Trust was established to preserve and restore the island and its buildings.  The organization sponsors fund raising events on the the island to help with the restoration projects.  To date many of the gardens have been reclaimed, replanted and restored to their earlier splendor.

We followed our guide up 72 steps, through the many beautifully restored gardens (some circular in shape, some pie wedge shaped and others randomly planted in the natural environment), up and down narrow pathways to and from the river and experienced many of the same spectacular views of the Hudson River and Hudson Highlands as must have been enjoyed by the Bannerman family so many years ago.

Our tour over we boarded the boat for return to Beacon.  As we pulled away from the dock the mood on the boat was somewhat subdued; partly because we were exhausted from having negotiated the steep inclines on the island but I think more so because it was our last adventure on the Hudson.  The time on the boat offered a time for reflection on the majestic and mysterious beauty of “our” Hudson River….”our” river because I am hopeful that we will all hold a part of the river inour hearts even as we each travel on different paths.