Beacon, NY—Just south of the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge lays a mysteriously isolated island and on this island stands the ruin of a once grand Scottish Castle, which in its time, stood as a fortress and rose above the trees to create an impressive gateway to the Hudson Highlands.
This is the image I remember as I child, and I am still captivated by the menacing vision of this dark lifeless structure surrounded by the rushing tides of the Hudson River. Today this majestic ruin, known as Bannerman’s Island Arsenal, rests on Pollepel Island and crumbles before our eyes. The recent deterioration of the ruin inspired me to not only witness and photograph the devastation, but to write about its lingering legends.
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Pollepel Island was just as mystifying nearly 400 years ago as it is today. This dark deserted isle was the subject of an impressive “arsenal” of storytellers’ tales. Storytelling was a common past time and, just as with any story, over time these tales were naturally embellished and grew into astounding historical accounts that were passed down by the area’s early inhabitants giving us the great early legends of angry spirits, lost lovers, and ghostly goblins.
The Early Legends
Long before Francis Bannerman built his castle, this six and three quarter acre isle was uninhabited. The Native Americans feared the island was possessed by evil spirits, which made it a prime location for settlers to hide during periods of aggression with the Indians. Over time, a number of legendary tales evolved. As I walked along the shoreline, the crystalline ice formations glistened in the sun and I thought of the legend of Polly Pell, a story that stakes claim for naming the island.
The story of Polly Pell (Pollepel) was shared among Dutch settlers when newlywed Polly Pell was saved from the frozen Hudson River following a romantic sleigh ride with her beau. The fierce currents of the icy Hudson washed Polly and her new husband up on the rocky shores when a slave rescued them and named the island after her and the legend of Polly Pell was born.
The infamous Pollepel Island became well-known among Hudson River sailors. The secluded island was the basis of much of fantastical folklore that surrounds river travel through the Hudson Highlands. The story The Storm-Ship written by famed storyteller and Tarrytown resident Washington Irving, tells the tale of a dreaded tribe of goblins that the Dutch feared inhabited Pollepel Island. These goblins thrived under the reign of the Heer of Dunderburgh who is said to control the gusty winds and treacherous waters of the Highlands.
The Dutch lived in fear of the Dunderburgh. The “storm ship”’ actually refers to the legendary Flying Dutchman, a ship lost in a brutal storm sinking just south of Pollepel Island. The story condemns the captain and his crew to sailing the Hudson for eternity and it has been reported that their cries for help can be heard during violent storms. Once a ship ventured past Pollepel Island, the captain and crew earned right of passage for a safe journey down the Hudson.
Whether or not the ghosts, goblins, and evil spirits existed was left to the imagination. However, boat captains were known to cast off new sailors on their inaugural voyages down the river as an initiation. Often drunk and scared out of their wits these poor sailors were forced to disembark to take their chances with the phantoms of Pollepel Island. They were picked up on the return trip hopefully sobered up and fearless.
Given the history of Pollepel’s influence on shipmen of that period, it is ironic that the next ghost story would be that of a tugboat captain angered by Bannerman himself.
A Ghost from the Bannerman Era
Francis Bannerman VI was the visionary behind the progressive growth of the Scottish castle that bears the name of Bannerman’s Island Arsenal. Bannerman purchased Pollepel Island in 1900 when his insatiable hobby of scrap collecting gave way to becoming a massive arms company. As his wealth increased, Bannerman was able to build a home that would serve as a monument to his heritage. The castle itself was comprised of six major sections; three arsenals, the lodge, the tower, and the superintendent’s house. In addition, there is also a family residence with magnificent views of the Highlands.
The property was protected by breakwaters, which were formed by the sinking of old barges and boats. There is a legendary tale that the tugboat captain of one of the boats requested that his prized vessel not be sunk in his presence, but before anyone knew it, the boat was sinking right before the former captains eyes. The captain cursed Bannerman and swore revenge. It has been said that employees in the lodge often heard the ringing of the boat’s bell at various times signifying that the captain had returned to make good on his promise.
Just as the tugboat captain experienced a devastating loss that would condemn him to Bannerman’s castle for an eternity, Bannerman would also experience loss.
A Castle in Ruin
Bannerman’s Island Arsenal has had its share of disastrous events. A 1920 explosion of gun powder and shells blew a wall clear over to the mainland. Three people were injured including Mrs. Bannerman and the incident incurred $50,000 in damage. The most devastating event occurred in August of 1969 in a fire that gutted all the buildings on the island.
It was undetermined as to what was the cause of the engulfing blaze that would destroy the celebrated estate of the late Francis Bannerman VI leaving it in ruin. This would not be the last disastrous event that the castle would endure. In late 2009 and early 2010 the castle saw increased damage that has forever changed the landscape of this iconic structure. I wonder how much longer it will endure the elements and how this rich haunted history will be remembered.
Remembering Bannerman’s Island Arsenal
The recent collapses have removed Bannerman’s name from his cherished castle. As the castle fades into history, the legends will remain to haunt us for a lifetime. As unbelievable as the stories may be, they add to the allure of the island and someday may be all that remains of one of the most captivating historical sites in the Hudson Valley. I think that Jane Bannerman’s quote best describes how I feel about Polly Pell’s island.
“No one can tell what associations and incidents will involve the island in the future. Time, the elements, and maybe even the goblins of the island will take their toll of some of the turrets and towers, and perhaps eventually the castle itself, but the little island will always have it’s place in history and in legend and will be forever a jewel in it’s Hudson Highland setting.” – Jane Bannerman