Post written by Ashley Todd, a fall intern at N-YHS who processed the Bannerman Family Papers. The collection was generously donated by Virginia Betts in 2011.
If you have ever taken the Metro-North Hudson Line train to Poughkeepsie then you are probably familiar with the haunting castle ruins that sit on a small island between the Beacon and Cold Spring stations. Resembling a relic that you would expect to find in the highlands of Scotland rather than in Upstate New York, it is difficult not to become intrigued by these structures that are slowly crumbling into the Hudson behind a series of “No Trespassing” signs.
The little known story of these buildings and the island they occupy begins with Francis (Frank) Bannerman VI. A proud native of Scotland who founded a military surplus company following the Civil War, Bannerman purchased the island in question, officially called Polopel Island, in 1900 with the aim to turn it into a storage location for his large store of military surplus. Patriotic to his heritage, Bannerman designed plans to construct a unique, Scottish-style estate on the island that included a grand personal residence, ornate gardens, an ice house and breakwaters, as well as an arsenal, a powder house, a superintendent’s house, a workshop and turrets.
During their time living on the island, a number of unfortunate incidents befell the Bannermans, including frequent lightning strikes due to the castle’s numerous flag poles, a raid by the US Navy during WWI, and a large explosion at the powder house in 1920 that caused minor injuries and a fair amount of damage.
In 1967, following the sale of the military surplus business, the Bannermans sold Polopel Island to The People of the State of New York. Unfortunately, a fire during the night of August 8, 1969 severely damaged all of the buildings, creating the landscape of ruins that exists today. The island and what is left of the estate are currently maintained by a non-profit agency associated with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Come learn more about the castle ruins, Polopel Island and the Bannerman Family through the Bannerman Family Papers, MS 2906.