When Is A Castle Not A Castle?

When is a castle not a castle? There is a mysterious building on an island in the middle of the Hudson River. At first glance, it looks like the remnants of a millionaire\’s mansion.  But you would be wrong.  At second glance, you might notice turrets and towers, and think you are seeing a castle for the pages of Arthurian lore.  But you would be wrong.

What you are seeing is a man-made illusion that was filled with explosives and surrounded by a dry moat with a drawbridge. What exactly are you looking at?

Answer:  Bannerman\’s Castle. You are looking at Bannerman\’s Castle that is not a mansion or a castle. And yep – it did explode. And burn. And collapse.  It is an interesting story laced with mystery and history. Let\’s explore this mystery together…

Bannerman Castle

In the middle of the Hudson River, on an unfriendly rock, is found a castle-like building that is crumbling into itself. Unfortunately decay and neglect have taken their toll on this unique construction. My first time seeing Bannerman\’s castle was late in the afternoon on a train ride. I only caught a glimpse as it slid past my window. It appeared to be an old mansion build on an island in the river. My research failed to find the source of the sight, since I had assumed it was a functional household / mansion. I certainly never used the term \”castle.\”

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Years later I learned the structure I had seen from the train window was known as Bannerman’s Castle. Unfortunately, at the time I learned about Bannerman, the island wasn\’t accepting tourists/visitors. Since I couldn’t visit the castle, the island and its appealing mystery fell from my memory.  In the past few years the castle suffered dramatic damage and serious structural collapse. The good news is that the island has picked up preservation efforts, and tourist dollars help contribute to this good effort.  This spring, during a cold and rainy weekend, I saw an advertisement to visit and tour Bannerman castle in July – and I remembered seeing this island and wanting to visit. I immediately purchased two tickets. Then, I purchased two more tickets for a second sunset tour of the island.

Hudson Valley road trip

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The heat wave of early July broke Friday evening.  Very early Saturday morning, my sister and I packed up the truck Nimbus and turned him north.  We enjoyed a casual drive up to Beacon, NY and arrived shortly before the scheduled 12:30pm ferry departure.  The ferry pier was a bit difficult to find due to our GPS taking us past the dock and well into a another dock park.  Thankfully the directions the tour service provided us in email helped us navigate our way back to the proper location. Having a few moments to spare, we ate our packed lunches and then sat under a tree enjoying the cool breeze and river views.

Melanie and I were going to try and do a few things this weekend, including visiting a National Park site and West Point military academy. But we were flexible with our agenda, and eager just to explore. The weekend was open to do whatever we wanted! What a great way to start the day.

Touristy Info

The ferry for the Bannerman Castle tour arrived on time, and nestled against the floating pier. The ferry boat seats a little over 40 guests, and provides wonderful views of the river when riding to the island. We boarded, grabbed a seat, and relaxed as the boat navigated us across the Hudson. While cruising along, our tour guides shares some information about Newburgh town across the river, including:

Regal Bag building

According to our guides, this building holds a world’s record for the multi-story building with an entrance on the top floor. The building’s entrance is on the top floor at street level, with the rest of the building going down to meet the river’s level.

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Edison’s Lamp in Newburgh

Found in Newburgh across the river, by the black flagpole, is one of Thomas Edison’s original lamps and lights (still works!). Apparently there are only two working lights, and the one across the Hudson River is one of those two. Mel and I exchanged glances: we were going to visit this lamp later.

Washington’s Headquarters

Washington encamped in Newburgh during the Revolutionary War, and his Head Quarters were preserved.  We were advised there was a small museum – and with the United States flag flying, it meant the museum and state park were open.

Newburgh Brewery

A brewery.  Enough said!

Pollepel Island

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We docked on Pollepel Island and followed our guided tour up 72 steps of a wooden staircase. Our guide gave us stories and history of the island. We heard how the Bannerman\’s earned their name – by claiming the banner (flag) off of a battlefield. Depending on the version you hear, you\’ll learn that the King bestowed the identity of Bannerman in honor of a heroic rescue of the banner flag during a battle, or that the people started referring to them as Bannerman for being the banner bearers when going into battle.  But no matter the true history, the family adopted the history of this name and when they decided to create their own family crest, the image of a hand carrying a flag sits proudly on top.

It is during our tour that we learn that the castle was never a residence, a fort, or a castle. Instead, it was a storage facility and munition repository.  But he wanted the appearance of a castle and presented the building crew with hand-drawn sketches of the \’look\’ he wanted – and the crew worked to recreate that look.  So some little tidbits I picked up on our two tours:

Cannons / Guns

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When observing the remnants of the castle, you\’ll see pipes jutting from the sides. They are consistency placed on the buildings and can be found on both the castle and the residence buildings. I assumed it was drainage pipes to help displace water away from the building. During the tour, we learned these pipes were intentionally placed for the sole purpose of appearing like guns – or cannons – protecting the castle. That\’s it. They\’re cosmetic. The entire purpose of their existence was to give the impressive of an armed castle defending itself.

Salvage and Recycle

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The Bannerman family was very green, very early in this country\’s history. The family\’s success started with salvage and recycling practices.  Our tour guide shared a story about a young teenage son building a business while is father was away.  This story is commemorated in the family crest as the grappling hook – signifying the beginning of their family\’s success. The son would use the hook to retrieve flotsam on the river near the ports, and resell the items he salvaged.  The crest also shows a sailing ship and an ordinance.  This sums up the family\’s beginnings and success.  As we walk along the island, someone asked what the metal bits were that were displayed in the gardens. Our guides told us that the Bannerman family never wasted resources, and so if any of their munitions or weapons weren\’t sold – the metal bits were used in the construction of the buildings on the islands as an early-day version of rebar.  And the wood items burned in fires.  Nothing was thrown away.

Water

The rocky island has no natural source of water, but is surrounded by plenty of water.  As the stories go, native tribes would visit the island to fish but would never stay overnight. Apparently it was suspected to be haunted.  Today, they use solar powered pumps to bring water from the river to the storage units at the top of the rock, and then use gravity to water the gardens on the island.  And every Wednesday, gardening volunteers arrive to maintain the island\’s beautiful and scenic views.  Your donations at the end of the tour contribute the costs and purchases of plants and equipment for maintaining the gardens – so please consider donating for such a noble cause. There are hard working volunteers keeping this island beautified for your viewing (and photography) pleasures.

Residence

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The residence is located further up the island and is much smaller – but much better preserved – than the castle.  It is carefully being restored and turned into a small museum.  When we visited, we found several interesting and curious bits of glass placed carefully on top of the fireplace mantel.  I inquired and learned that these were bits of prism glass that had been built into the floor of a balcony that served as a protective covering of a doorway.  Guests entering the doorway would walk through rainbows of prisms created by the glass in the balcony floor above. It simply sounds charming! Sadly this structure no longer exists, but I wish it would get recreated. I\’d love to see the romantic splash of color when entering the residence.  The Residence has been renovated and rebuilt.

You can stroll around the residence and view history of the Bannerman family and island.  Here you\’ll see the hand-drawn etches used to inspire and create the \’castle\’ storage facility.  Plus the breakwater construction that can still be seen at low tide.

Summit and Peace Pole

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After touring the residence, we were invited to cross a West Point constructed bridge and climb up to the island\’s summit.  It gives you a wonderful panoramic view of the Hudson River and both Newburgh and Beacon and the Newburgh Beacon Bridge.  Erected at the crest of the summit rock is a Peace Pole, dedicated to Pete Seeger, Joshi Seeger, Rev. Sylvester McClearn and Earth Day Founder John McConnell.  It was a popular photo opportunity for all the members of our tour.

Wee Bay

During our mid-day tour we visited Wee Bay. It is a tricky descent to a lovely garden alcove.  Unfortunately, the descent was steep and the climb back up was difficult.  The path is uneven, cresting over rocky terrain and tree roots.  Wooden braces have been erected to keep the path from dissolving down the slope.   I was more impressed by the gardeners after that climb. I couldn\’t imagine doing it with trays of plants or gardening equipment.

Ending our first tour

We spent a few hours on the island and then we were led back to the dock to board our returning ferry.  Melanie and I had eagerly photographed as much as possible in the bright July sunshine, and we were pleased with our tour.  We didn\’t feel rushed and we enjoyed the stories and information our guide gave us.  We had a hours before attending our second tour (for sunset photos), so we decided we would visit Newburgh.

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Trip Summary

Trip Worthy?

  • Day trip? Absolutely
  • Weekend Trip? Absolutely
  • Worth Going Out of Our Way?  The Hudson River valley is filled with adventure, nature, beauty and history. It should be a must-visit for everyone.
  • Worth air-fare? I believe the region is worth exploring. The national parks and popular state parks have arranged for transportation options. A little research and you too could explore and enjoy a Hudson River vacation

Kid / Pet Friendly?

  • School kids? Absolutely! They\’ll love the idea of exploring a haunted island. The tour is short enough that they won\’t get too bored. But note the physical requirements, it may not be suitable for very young kids.
  • Teens? Sure, this has a colorful history, entertaining stories, and sights you can\’t find anywhere else.
  • Really young kids? Maybe not good due to physical requirements, exposure to elements, and commitment to the tour\’s schedule.
  • Pets? Not pet accessible; check website for assist-animal regulations

Enjoyment Level?

  • My sister and I enjoyed everything about this excursion: the location, the river, the island, the odd and wonderful history, the beauty and the weirdness of it all.  It really is a special place, and this island tour was well worth the travel and effort
  • Keep in mind that there is little shelter on the island, so weather will play a role in your visitation
  • The tour is a scheduled and guided tour. You cannot roam the island freely. But the tour guides do their best to make it entertaining and enjoyable
  • The region is dense with activities, culture, history, and outdoor places.  You will find something that suits your tastes

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