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Wordsmiths We Know: Inside Bannerman’s Castle
By Wayne A. Hall   - 02/11/2007

The Times Herald-Record

More Info on This Book: Bannerman Castle

A fairy tale castle off Cornwall-on-Hudson, rising from a rocky islet. The scene still slows cars, gets people staring out of Metro-North commuter train windows and has become an official Hudson River "scenic ruin." To many travelers, it's just Bannerman's (imitation Scottish-Moorish-Belgian-whatever) Island castle, if they know that at all.

How did this fantasy castle, boasting even a portcullis to stop invading warriors (see Robin Hood), get there?

Take a tour via the photo-laden new book about the castle, "Bannerman Castle," by Arcadia Publishing authors Thom Johnson and Barbara H. Gottlock. It should be required reading — and seeing — up and down the river.

If ever a subject deserved a book of photographs with accompanying text, it's Bannerman's Castle.

Here's the skinny.

By 1884, the Bannermans, who became maybe the country's first big Army-Navy surplus guys, printed their first catalog, "Guns, swords, cannons, equipments and military goods." Starting in Brooklyn, they even sold canvas, metals and veggies. After the Civil War, the humble-origins businessmen blossomed.

Call it a rags-to-surplus-reindeer-hide-sleeping-bags potboiler. With many men named Bannerman.

Here's the scenario: Bannerman V went off to the Civil War, leaving behind Bannerman VI to support the family. Bannerman VI quit school and became a nimble scrounger, using "an old anchor as a grappling hook" to retrieve rope and other marketable castoffs from New York harbor.

Soon, any used military thing became gold in the Bannerman grasp.

The 1889 Bannerman catalog included "a collection of bombshells, as used in the Civil War." And "50 Assorted Rifles, Muskets and Carbines, part of the lot surrendered by the Indian Chief, Sitting Bull, to the U.S. Government, after the Custer massacre." (Some were still loaded.)

Want dried lean meat pounded into a paste with fat? The Bannermans had 5,000 pounds of that (pemmican) to sell at 10 cents a pound.

Today, a Bannerman catalogue — it grew to 300 pages — is a collectible chock-full of mayhem and wonder.

Bannerman amassed tons of shells, black powder, pith helmets, big naval cannons, even crutches, you name it, over the years, storing huge mounds of the stuff upriver on
Bannerman's Island.

The New York City Bannerman's store was bursting. And, after all, an island is a safer place for explosions. (In fact, on Aug. 15, 1920, Bannerman's Island black-powder house did explode, spewing rock, shell fragments "and other material great distances.") So the Scotsman looked north, buying the island of Pollepel in 1900.

But the island wasn't all military mayhem. Bannerman, whose immediate family also lived on the island, infused his martial kingdom with peaceful, meditation-friendly grottoes, gardens, lookouts, marvelous trails with dreamy vistas of the Hudson Highlands.

As the castle grew (construction began in 1901), its walls sported all manner of decorations: round marine buoys, cannons and cannonballs, plus the Bannerman coat of arms emblazoned on the buildings.

Bannerman was a generous man. He contributed mightily to the World War I relief efforts, including loads of crutches to Belgium.

Religious, too, he fixed the Scots-laden ode to God, "I laid me doun and slept, I awaked for Jehova sustaineth me" on a castle wall.

Castle construction continued until Bannerman's death in 1918.

Afterward, his Hudson River island dream battlements couldn't be sustained. Business dipped. The stored inventory was removed. A great fire on Aug. 8, 1969, speeded the castle complex's demise. Vandals and looters carried off fragments and destroyed small but precious things such as a family organ.

Still, the castle remains are a visual showstopper, especially from such vantage points as the lookout pulloffs on Storm King Mountain.

Small towers guard the island's bay. Mystery hangs over the rambling turrets, gaping windows, cracked walls.

Francis Bannerman Sons Inc. sold the island to the state of New York in 1967. Since then, the nonprofit Bannerman Castle Trust has been offering guided tours. There's limited public access — after all, the structures are unstable.

Reading this book is the next best thing to being there. What fun.

"Bannerman Castle," a 127-page paperback photo-rich history of fabled Bannerman's Island and its castle, sells for $19.99. Written by Thom Johnson and Barbara H. Gottlock, the book is published by Arcadia Publishing.

Buy It Now: Bannerman Castle $21.99

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