Fortress on the Hudson
Volume 56 Number 1, January/February 2003
by Eric A. Powell
Crumbling ruins are all that's left of the arsenal and summer home of an enterprising American arms dealer.
|After the Spanish-American War, arms merchant Francis Bannerman bought 90 percent of the U.S. Army's decommissioned weapons and an estimated 30 million rounds of ammunition. Unable to store the cache at his New York City showroom, Bannerman constructed an arsenal on an island in the Hudson River. Built in the style of a Scottish castle, the arsenal featured a gateway once outfitted with a drawbridge. Long neglected and devastated by fire in 1969, the castle is now the focus of local preservation efforts. (Thom Johnson) [LARGER IMAGE]|
On a misty morning, it's a bewitching sight--an abandoned Scottish castle with a soaring tower and crenelated battlements rising from a forested, six-acre island. But once the fog lifts, it becomes clear that the castle is not all that it seems. To begin with, it's in the middle of the Hudson River, 50 miles north of New York City and a few miles upriver from West Point. And it isn't really a castle at all but rather the remains of the arsenal and summer home of Francis Bannerman VI, in his time America's best-known weapons dealer. Emblazoned on the castle's north wall are the words "Bannerman's Island Arsenal," a built-in billboard for the world's biggest trader in army war surplus.
Begun in 1901, the castle not only made business sense but also celebrated Bannerman's rich heritage. He was a descendant of Francis Bannerman, standard-bearer of Clan Macdonald, who in 1692 barely escaped the infamous massacre at Glencoe, where the Campbells nearly wiped out the Macdonalds. The Bannerman name is said to come from the Scottish king Robert Bruce, who bestowed it on the family after one of their own heroically rescued a captured banner at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
In 1865, a precocious 14-year-old Bannerman got into the scrap-metal business at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. At the time, the U.S. military was decommissioning equipment used in the Civil War. Bannerman soon learned that veterans and other collectors already nostalgic for the war were willing to pay good money for the weapons, equipment, and uniforms that he could buy in bulk. Over the course of 50 years, he single-handedly created the war surplus market, selling obsolete weaponry and military paraphernalia all over the world. Bannerman's showroom in Manhattan became famous as a kind of military museum (Bannerman hoped it would someday be known as "The Museum for Lost Arts"). Today, the showroom's 501 Broadway address is a parking lot.
Collectors weren't Bannerman's only customers. He was thought to have outfitted at least one Latin American country with a battleship, and though he vigorously denied ever supplying "revolutionists," many thought they saw Bannerman's weapons in the hands of Panamanian insurgents during their struggle for independence from Colombia. He also may have supplied the Japanese during their victorious campaign against the Russians in 1905.
These alleged associations came back to haunt the arms dealer during World War I. The arrest of one of his employees on charges of spying cast suspicion on the whole company, despite the fact that Bannerman had donated money to various British causes before America's entry into the war. As a precaution, soldiers were stationed on his island. The incident was said to have devastated the deeply patriotic Bannerman, who died soon after the troops left in 1918. The business was kept running by his sons for another 40 years, though the castle fell into disrepair long before that. The state bought the island in 1967. In the late 1950s, all the army surplus was taken off Bannerman's Island, partly because of looting. All over the Hudson Valley, local families still boast pith helmets, canteens, ammunition, and even weapons pilfered from Bannerman's.
It's not easy to get on the island today--at least not legally. To visit the castle you need permission from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which owns the island, and the help of the Bannerman Castle Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the castle and opening it to the public. Founded in 1993 by theater director and preservationist Neil Caplan, the trust works closely with the state to raise funds for stabilization of the ruins.
Eric A. Powell is associate editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.
The Bannerman Castle trust has an excellent website www.bannermancastle.org, where among other things you can order copies of C.S. Bannerman's The Story of Bannerman Island (Fishkill, NY; Bannerman Castle Trust, 1962), the only comprehensive history of the castle. JFLogan Books publishes a fascmile edition of the 1900 Bannerman Catalogue of Military Goods. For more information and sample pages go to www.jfloganbooks.com.
© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America