If you’ve ever taken the Metro-North along the Hudson line, you’ve likely noticed a petite and desolate land mass in the middle of the Hudson River, just a few miles north of Cold Spring. Known as Pollepel Island, it measures just 6.5 acres and isn’t home to much: There’s just one structure, a decaying building that’s hidden amid the trees and other foliage that have overtaken the island.
This is Bannerman’s Castle, a 19th-century relic that has been slowly crumbling into its surrounding environs. And while Pollepel Island and the castle itself are largely cut off from the public, they’re accessible for tours throughout summer and fall, and a fantastic reason to take a day trip upstate. (Of note: Tours are not wheelchair accessible, unfortunately.)
Though the structure may look like it was once a rich family’s enormous estate, its origins are actually a bit more humble. In the decades following the Civil War, it was the center of entrepreneur Francis Bannerman’s northeastern retail empire. Bannerman, who was born in Scotland but raised in Brooklyn, accumulated and sold surplus military goods from a young age, and began his catalog business following the war.
Bannerman needed a place to store his cache of retail goods—which included weapons, uniforms, and gunpowder—and thus, the storehouse on Pollepel Island was born. Before he came along, the island had been largely uninhabited; tall tales about it being haunted persisted and kept would-be settlers away. But once Bannerman arrived, he set about building a grand structure there, inspired by the design of Scottish and Moorish castles. (There’s also a smaller, less decorated building, which was used as an office and residence.)
Construction began in 1901, and was never quite finished. Bannerman died in 1918, and a massive explosion damaged the edifice in 1920. Decades of decline, plus a huge fire in 1969, left the structure in ruins by the 1990s, when the Bannerman Castle Trust was established. Neil Caplan, a Beacon resident, founded the organization—today, he’s one of several guides who lead regular tours of the island, and has a hand in planning the special events that take place there.
Touring the island is an anachronistic experience and well worth the price of admission, which is $35 for adults and $30 for kids. (Note for the thrifty: There’s also a Metro-North package that bundles the price of a tour with a train ticket to Beacon or Newburgh.) Visitors are whisked to Pollepel via ferry from either Beacon or Newburgh, which deposits them at the bottom of a long staircase leading to a bluff overlooking the castle. (The structure itself is not stable enough to allow tourgoers inside, alas.)
Guides give a brief history of the island and circulate photos of Bannerman’s old storehouse before bringing visitors to the old residence, which recently reopened after an extensive renovation. While there, you’re also encouraged to explore the gardens, which are maintained by volunteers and feature all manner of lovely native plants.
Tours happen on weekends throughout the warm-weather months, and the trust also hosts a number of special events throughout the summer. This year, there’ll be screenings of classic films (with a focus on horror and suspense, fittingly), as well as a production of Hamlet by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.