|At the conclusion of the movie, Gangs of New York, the scene is that of a graveyard (with Manhattan Island in the background), and the headstones of the dearly departed antagonists in the foreground. The scene progresses, time elapses, and the background slowly dissolves from 1863 until the modern day, obviously denoted by the gradually emerging skyscrapers. Tragically enough, the same headstones erode and eventually disappear all together, right before the end credits appear. These images are meant to convey that as technology progresses, simultaneously our appreciation of the past regresses until it is gone. My wife and I just learned of the importance of an obscure island located in the Hudson River just north of West Point, and how a group of dedicated preservationists refused to let this island dissolve into oblivion like those headstones.
Bannerman Island, as it is known for decades, is still technically listed as Pollepel Island, its proper name. How the island became identified with Bannerman is no mystery; what is still debatable, however, is the origin of the Pollepel label. Whether it is fact or folklore at this point, I dare say most people do not care. The romanticized story has transcended time and still is promulgated by locals infatuated with their mark on American History.
As the story goes, the island got its name from Polly Pell (hence the unintended amalgam of Pollepel). Polly Pell, a local farmer’s daughter, was set to marry the Reverend Paul Vernon, much to the chagrin of Guert Brinkerhoff, who was also in love with Pell. On a cold winter day, the reverend and Pell went sleigh riding on the frozen Hudson. The ice then gave way, causing the sleigh riders to crash into the river. Brinkeroff, who was following the couple in fear this may happen, dove into the freezing cold water rescuing them both. The three then made their way to an island, where the reverend supposedly had a “true love” epiphany, and realized that Pell and Brinkeroff were destined to be together. Rev. Vernon renounced his marriage claim, and married them.
Just like Pell and Brinkeroff, I met a couple who not only fell in love with each other, but with an island, the then-vacated and decrepit Bannerman Island, back in 2002. My wife and I had the privilege to attend a lecture regarding the history of Bannerman Island in early July 2009, courtesy of the Putnam County Historical Society. Wes and Barbara Gottlock moved to the area in 2002, and could see Bannerman Island everyday from their house. Having fallen in love with the island, they began researching its history, as well as joining a preservation movement to reopen the island to the public. Bannerman’s Island was purchased by New York State in 1967 and condemned as unsafe. The Bannerman Castle Trust was established in 1993 to reopen the island for everyone to see. The island would open again to the public in 2004. Today, Bannerman Island is open for tours with ferries from Newburgh and Beacon (Check out their website at www.bannermancastle.org or www.prideofthehudson.com for further information).
Aside from the island’s place in a fairytale love story, its niche in American History is cemented with undisputed events and people.
The first story relates to our fight for independence from England, the other revolves around an immigrant living the great American Dream.
The island held military significance during the American Revolution, or more specifically, the waterways around the island did; cheveau-de-frise (spiked waterway obstructions) were sunk from the western side of the island to the Hudson’s western shore (an area known as Plum Point), designed to impede the flow of British warships sailing north on the Hudson in 1777. Unfortunately, the British navigated their way around these traps, possibly learning safe routes from area Loyalists. This would be one of many unsuccessful attempts to blockade the Hudson River. Later in 1781, a military prison was approved to be built on the island, but apparently never completed, possibly due to the diminishing war effort after General Lord Charles Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown. The Continental Army’s Commander-in-Chief, Major General George Washington, personally approved both of these military decisions.
The island would temporarily pass into obscurity until purchased for $1,600.00 by a Scottish immigrant named Francis Bannerman in 1900. This island, in time, would become the pinnacle symbol of this man’s classic “living the American dream” success story. Bannerman would use the island to store the excess army and navy supplies that he purchased in bulk at the end of the Spanish-American War, including but not limited to: swords, uniforms, rifles, etc. Taking advantage of rock bottom prices, Bannerman would turn around and resell these items to emerging young nations; nations who were anxious to supply their basic military equipment needs, but could not afford to buy brand new equipment. Bannerman was initially forced to move the supplies away from New York City, mainly because the surrounding businesses and residents feared the mass quantities of gunpowder he had amassed. Business would continue to be conducted from his office at 501 Broadway in New York while all manufacturing and shipping occurred on the island.
What started as a mere storage concept, soon blossomed into both advantageous advertising and living opportunities: Bannerman would erect huge billboards for all to see, as well as construct a house for his family. He designed the overall structure to appear as a majestic looking castle; the building today is known as Bannerman Castle. Bannerman and his family would live here from May to November every year, starting possibly around 1908, and continuing after Bannerman’s death (in 1918) up until the 1940’s.
As the lecture continued, Wes and Barbara would point out that Bannerman was a man with uncommon thinking for a man of his economic status: “He had a do-it-yourself mentality and was not afraid to get his hands dirty.” The photos of Bannerman they presented via slideshow supported this view: a proud grandfather, standing next to his beloved grandchildren, his sleeves rolled up and his work boots filthy – all indications of a man with a great work ethic. This was obviously a man who did not forget his humble origins, nor let his ascension into the social stratosphere cloud his philanthropic and spiritual demeanor. For example, during World War One, Bannerman would donate and ship military supplies to the Allies, a good deed that would not go unpunished. The U.S. Government would receive intelligence that some of these same goods would make their way into enemy hands, resulting in the island being sealed off. It would take years, as well as a personal written apology (believed to be) from then-Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, to exonerate Bannerman’s name. Unfortunately, he did not live to see himself vindicated.
As the lecture ended, I realized that in the course of about two hours, my wife and I walked away with an appreciation of a topic obviously too many people had neglected over time. Thankfully, there are many people like Wes and Barbara who commit themselves to restoring the unsung heroes and preserving eroding testaments to our heritage as Americans. The island and Bannerman’s memory will not disappear like those headstones in the movie. Thanks to Barbara, Wes, and the members of the Bannerman Castle Trust, the history of the island and the rags-to-riches story of Bannerman, as well as his impact on American History, will not fade away. The dedication of the members to preserve Bannerman’s memory is what historical preservation is all about: never forgetting.