Approximately 80 kilometers north of New York, and just 300 meters from the eastern bank of the Hudson River, there is a small rocky island called Pollepel, on which the remains of what appears to be a dilapidated Scottish castle stand out. In fact they witness the birth and fall of an empire …
Its story goes hand in hand with Francis Bannerman, who was born in Dundee, Scotland, in 1851, and arrived in the United States at the age of three, along with his family, who settled in New York. While he went to school, Francis began to collect and sell scrap and, already in 1865 at only 14, he had founded a company to sell military items, the surplus of the armed forces, mainly coming from auctions.
The company, simply called Bannerman, sold scrap metal and ammunition, but also entire ships, as well as historical relics of the Wars of Independence and Civil, such as cannons and uniforms. The customers interested in this type of articles were many, from the beginning of the cinema to Buffalo Bill.
During the First World War Bannerman bought the whole regiments material en bloc, and it is estimated that 50% of the commemorative cannons placed in public areas of the United States were supplied by his company.
After the Spanish-American War, in 1898, Bannerman bought 90% of the US Army surplus, a quantity of material so big and dangerous that it could not be stored inside the city. In 1900 the businessman bought Pollepel Island, earmarked for stock, especially for ammunition and explosives.
A year later the family began the construction of a Scottish style castle, to be used as a summer residence. Bannerman personally made drawings of the richly decorated buildings, but the workers were allowed to make them according to their interpretation: all the works were done without the help of architects and engineers.
Most of the buildings were the company’s warehouses, only a small castle, located in the upper part of the island, was used as a residence for the family. Bannerman began to decorate it with objects from his collection, while his wife took care of beautifying paths and terraces with flowers and plants. The inscription “Bannerman’s Island Arsenal” stands in large letters on one side of the castle, a gigantic advertising sign still visible today.
The construction was interrupted in 1918, at the death of Bannerman, and the island has since lived alternate events: in 1920 there was a strong explosion, caused by the stored material, which destroyed part of the complex. However, the family continued to use the residence until the late 1930s.
In 1950 there was another incident: a storm caused the sinking of the ferry to Pollepel, and the island with its arsenal was substantially abandoned, although the last superintendent left in 1957.
Pollepel was purchased by the US state in 1967, but remained abandoned, and in 1969 a devastating fire left only a heap of ruins.
Things have not changed much over the years, but since 1990 the Bannerman Castle Trust has been committed to the conservation of the island, stabilizing the remaining structures.
The island can be visited from May to October, but only during guided tours.