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Bannerman's Island To Reopen For Tours

Owned by New York state and maintained by the Bannerman Castle Trust, Bannerman’s Island is quite a sight for anyone riding the train past Beacon. There, on a 6.5-acre rocky island, stand the ruins of a Scottish castle in the Hudson Highlands. 

Stepping off onto Bannerman’s Island, just yards from the dock, are towering castle walls.

“So all of this Scottish design – thistles and brick, mortar, stucco to look like a Scottish castle even though built in the early 1900s – has a look from Middle Ages. And he loved that being of Scottish descent and very proud.”

That’s Sheldon Stowe, a member of the Bannerman Castle Trust. The “he” Stowe is referring to is Francis Bannerman. Bannerman was in the family business of buying and selling scrap and surplus military equipment. Pollepel Island — its actual name — was also of historical military significance in the Revolutionary War.

The castle, which once stood seven stories, was actually used as a warehouse for Bannerman’s business. Along with a separate residence, construction began in 1901.

“Fifty percent of the warehouse’s walls are up but over time and wind, the change and the breaking of the cement has crumpled some of it. We had put some supports on to try to keep the main tower structure secure from the winds through the highlands and the gap is quite impressive here,” said Stowe.

Remaining walls are propped up by steel supports. What hasn’t been worn down by the elements was destroyed by a fire in 1969, just two years after ownership of the property was transferred to New York.

Stowe used to visit this place as a kid. His father worked for the West Point Museum, and when collectors would seek to visit the armory, Stowe would ride along in a private boat operated by a man named Clem Mosher who worked for the Bannerman’s business.

“Being a young kid, I could walk through the castle and take as much…Clem was nice. You know, he’d carry out. And you’d put the pith helmets on your head and canteens and bayonets and fake sword scabbards…”

Growing up here, Stowe appreciates all the work being done to not only maintain the property but make it accessible to the public…

“Thinking when the trust started they were able to bring people out here? I was not believing it, until they built the dock and the 80 steps and the cement work and clearing trails and the State of New York allowing access to the island with limitations,” said Stowe.

There’s a lot of teamwork that goes into supporting the structures, maintaining the gardens and trails, and making the island more accessible.

Outside the Bannerman’s residence, currently being renovated, there’s a brand new cement sidewalk, supported through a grant from non-profit organization Parks and Trails New York. Jonathan Duda is the organization’s grants administrator.

“I mean the Bannerman Island, it’s a Trust, but we consider them a Friends group of the New York State Parks. And with that…the smaller groups, we’re a lot more accessible for these groups to deal with rather than go through some huge organization,” said Duda.

Neil Caplan, Executive Director of the Bannerman Castle Trust, is preparing for another year of tours and performances on the island after the COVID-19 pandemic upended last year’s season.

“Normally we’ve been doing theater and concerts and things, because of COVID we had to abandon that stuff for last year. But now we’re starting to bring things back. So we want people to be able have a wonderful experience here on Bannerman’s Island, to enjoy the history that we have here because we have rich history here with Bannerman’s Island. And to enjoy the gardens and the trails…”

Currently, the island can be reached by kayak, or, how I arrived for the tour: on a boat that departed from Beacon’s waterfront. It’s a primary goal of the Trust to get service restored from Newburgh in Orange County, also disrupted by the pandemic. That’s also a goal of Orange County Tourism Director Amanda Dana…

“It’s exciting, first and foremost, because it connects the two sides of the river. Of course, this is like our middle ground, which we do share this attraction with Dutchess County. But it’s also an outdoor adventure with all kinds of history that people crave,” said Dana.

For more information visit:https://bannermancastle.org/

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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