POLLEPEL ISLAND, N.Y. – The castle on the Hudson River is crumbling.
One of the stranger sights on the river, Bannerman's island castle is a high-walled ruin topped with turrets that looks like it was built to repel catapult attacks. In reality, the century-old structure off the river's eastern shore was a warehouse for bayonets, pith helmets, rifles and other military relics.
The island has had a second life in recent years as a summer tourist attraction. Visitors — many who know the castle from their daily train commute to New York City — can take a tour boat or a kayak for guided tours of the island. But hard hats must be worn. Big chunks of the castle tumbled down this winter and more could fall at any time.
"Every year, something deteriorates and comes down on us," Neil Caplan of the Bannerman Castle Trust said as he gave a tour of the island recently.
The castle looks both majestic and precarious, and Caplan and the trust are scrambling to raise money for repairs before it's too far gone. This past winter was especially rough: Two walls fell down, including one facing the river bank with "BANNERMAN'S ISLAND ARSENAL" emblazoned across the top. Vegetation sprouts from the walls and the crenelated top is so degraded it looks like it's missing teeth.
The structure is named for Francis Bannerman VI, who bought the rocky, 6 1/2-acre island in 1900 as a place to warehouse items sold in his war relic store in Manhattan, some 50 miles south. (City fathers did not want him to store munitions locally.) Bannerman was an amateur architect with a touch of P.T. Barnum. He modeled his warehouse after castles in his native Scotland, giving it a siege-ready look with a moat and turrets.
Bannerman also built an island residence much smaller than the warehouse but with the same castle motif. It's on a high spot of land and commands the sort of sweeping view of the Hudson Highlands that hedge fund managers pay millions for.
The Bannerman family enjoyed an island retreat that was a world unto itself. They could spend idle days by the gardens, watch the ferries go upriver or sail. Down the hill was the castle and a separate powder house, which blew up spectacularly in 1920.
Family members continued to frequent the island for decades after Francis Bannerman died in 1918. The island was sold to New York state in 1967, two years before a fire gutted the castle. Left standing were the high walls familiar to Metro-North and Amtrak passengers.
Bannerman Castle Trust formed in 1993 to turn the scenic ruin into a proper attraction. Caplan, a local real estate agent and bed-and-breakfast owner, has headed the trust since the beginning. The pay is modest, but he's passionate. During a recent tour of the island for tourism industry officials and the press, he stopped a couple of times to pull weeds from the winding walking paths and actually shouted once: "This is still important to save!"
Visitors can get close-up looks at the castle ruins, but must stay back because of the threat of a fresh collapse. The tour also includes a ramble through island paths that wind through rehabilitated gardens and to the house.
The residence is scheduled for roof, floor and other stabilization work this summer with the help of donations and state and federal grants. More ambitious — and expensive — work on the castle is still in the future.
Though the island is part of nearby Hudson Highlands state park, the trust is responsible for raising money for its rehabilitation. Caplan praises parks officials as wonderful partners, but the state agency has already closed dozens of parks and has little money to spare. U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer has applied for $1 million through the "Save America's Treasures" historic preservation program, but that money, if it comes, is not expected until next year.
The castle could face more danger if the Hudson Valley gets another winter with cycles of freezing and warmer weather — which pretty much describes every recent winter here. There are fears the island's signature feature could become a rock pile. That would leave the trust with an even more expensive choice of whether to reconstruct a faux-castle. Caplan hopes to raise enough money before it gets to that point.
"I just get antsy," Caplan said in the shadow of the castle, "because it can come down at any time."
If You Go...
BANNERMAN CASTLE: Located on Pollepel Island, N.Y.; www.BannermanCastle.org.
TOURS: With cooperation from state parks, Hudson River Adventures and the Bannerman Castle Trust run boats to the island for 2 1/2-hour guided tours, May 1-Oct. 31, weekends and some weekdays, adults $30, children 11 and under, $25; prideofthehudson.com/pollepel-schedule.shtml or 845-220-2120. Advance ticket purchase suggested. Boats leave from Front Street in Newburgh, N.Y., and the commuter ferry dock in Beacon, right by the Metro-North station. Wear shoes appropriate for trails.
Two companies run kayak tours on selected weekend dates. Hudson Valley Outfitters, 63 Main St., Cold Spring, N.Y., runs five-to-six-hour tours for $120, which includes kayak, equipment and lunch; hudsonvalleyoutfitters.com/ or 845-265-0221.
Storm King Adventure Tours, 178 Hudson St., Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y., runs a four-hour tour for $120, which includes kayak and equipment; stormkingadventuretours.com/ or 845-534-7800.