Bannerman's Island

[Image: Bannerman's Island, copyright Shaun O'Boyle].

I have a thing for abandoned islands, so I was excited to see Shaun O'Boyle's photo series of Bannerman's Island, an old, half-flooded and fire-damaged derelict mansion built on a small island in the Hudson River.

[Images: Bannerman's Island, copyright Shaun O'Boyle].

As American Heritage describes it, "this island fortress was once the private arsenal of the world’s largest arms dealer." And that was Frank "Francis" Bannerman.
Bannerman, we learn, "bought up ninety per cent of all captured guns, ammunition, and other equipment auctioned off after the Spanish-American War. He also bought weapons directly from the Spanish government before it evacuated Cuba. These purchases vastly exceeded the firm’s capacity at its store in Manhattan and filled three huge Brooklyn warehouses with munitions, including thirty million cartridges." Accordinglty, "Bannerman now needed an arsenal."
Or, more accurately speaking: he needed a private island.

[Image: Bannerman's Island, copyright Shaun O'Boyle].

Bannerman soon purchased "six and a half acres of scrub-covered rock called Polopel’s Island, about fifty-five miles north of New York City." But even that wasn't enough. He then "bought seven acres more of underwater land in front of the island from the state of New York. He ringed the submerged area with sunken canalboats, barges, and railroad floats to form a breakwater" – a kind of artificial reef.
"The island was under continuous construction for eighteen years."

[Image: Bannerman's Island, copyright Shaun O'Boyle].

Quoting at length:
    The castle was Bannerman’s vision and his execution. It was creviced and encrusted with battlements, towers, turrets, crenellations, parapets, embrasures, casements, and corbelling. Huge iron baskets suspended from the castle corners held gas-fed lamps that burned in the night like ancient torches. By day Bannerman’s castle gave the river a fairyland aspect. By night it threw a brooding silhouette against the Hudson skyline.
[Image: Bannerman's Island, copyright Shaun O'Boyle].

    Visitors approached the place along a breakwater bristling with cannon and then passed through an opening flanked by two watchtowers. After tying up their boat at a large unloading dock they crossed a moat spanned by a drawbridge and passed under a portcullis crowned by the Bannerman coat of arms carved in stone.
Bannerman died a week after the end of World War I – and the island had sunk into a state of "monumental decay" by the 1960s.
It was then gutted by arsonists.
And then photographer Shaun O'Boyle came into the picture.

[Image: Bannerman's Island, copyright Shaun O'Boyle].

"I found the island," Shaun explained to me over email, "while commuting to NYC via the Amtrak train along the east bank of the Hudson River, which passes by the island and is plainly visible. It is located north of Cold Spring, NY, and can be seen when crossing the Beacon Bridge."
"New York state owns the island now," O'Boyle added, "and there are renovations going on, but I'm not sure what their plans are for public access. You can take tours of the island, via kayak, or motor boat."

[Image: Bannerman's Island, copyright Shaun O'Boyle].

O'Boyle goes on to describe how he "explored the island using a kayak with friends," and that he's "made 3 visits, 2 in the past 2 years. The last visit we climbed the mountain adjacent to the river," he adds, "and that is where the aerial views are from."
When I asked him about what appear to be flooded foundation walls, ringing the island like a tropical atoll, Shaun said: "What look like sunken foundations in the Hudson are actually part of the breakwater constructed to form a harbor for unloading the ships of supplies."
And when I asked him about the actual construction of the building – how the ruined walls handle themselves today, maintaining their shape and structure – O'Boyle wrote that "the construction quality was lacking, and I heard that Bannerman used old musket barrels to reinforce some of the concrete walls."
Architecture as a kind of thinly described weapon: like almost all archaeology, scrape deep enough and you'll uncover the residues of warfare.

[Images: Bannerman's Island, copyright Shaun O'Boyle].

    The island is a beautiful place. I have been there in the mid-summer only, and thick vegetation covers everything, making it a challenge to move around anywhere but the paths. It certainly is a different kind of ruin for me to photograph: most of my photography work is of large scale industrial ruins, like Bethlehem Steel, and some of the industries that feed the steel mills – like coal and mining. Although my latest work is a bit different, I have been photographing the coal mining region of Pennsylvania – the towns, buildings and landscapes. It's a fascinating area. But Bannerman's is a more romantic ruin, set among the beautiful hills of the Hudson river.
It's also the perfect setting for a future Patrick McGrath novel.
And the island – or at least Bannerman's arsenal – has had its effects elsewhere. As O'Boyle explained, Bannerman "published a catalogue of all his products – Bannermans Catalogue – and, in fact, I currently have a 1925 edition on order from a used book store. Word has it that many of the canons you find in front of American Legions and town halls around the country are from Bannermans."

[Images: Bannerman's Island, copyright Shaun O'Boyle].

Don't miss the rest of O'Boyle's website, Modern Ruins, including his exquisite visual tour of Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary – where my wife once worked as a tour guide – as well as this freaky crypt.
Of course, you can also support the artist by purchasing a print.
Finally, you can read more about Bannerman's Island here and here – and, while you're at it, why not read a bit about Boldt Castle, another ruined, island-bound mansion, this one standing amidst vegetation further north in the Thousand Islands. I used to visit that place as a kid; we'd go up to see my grandpa, a boatbuilder, who lived on one of the nearby islands, and then we'd toot on over to Boldt Castle.

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Blogger Ms. Kathleen said...

Wow, this is fantastic and I love the photos to go with the article. It would be an amazing place to visit.

November 12, 2007 2:56 PM  
Blogger Lost America said...

I discovered Shaun's Boatyard images about 5 years ago, they are truly incredible:

Great to see his newer work at Bannerman's island.

November 12, 2007 3:40 PM  
Blogger Speed McQueen said...

If you like abandoned islands, Manaugh, you should check out Fort Gorges in the Casco Bay just off the coast of Portland, Maine. It's pretty cool out there and as far as I know the majority of tourists arrive via kayak.

A. Britt

November 12, 2007 7:33 PM  
Blogger jgrant said...

Mmm, that's a delicious location, and great photos.

Folks might also enjoy learning about the series of forts surrounding the island of Kronshtadt, in NW Russia. They're not very well known, but absolutely fascinating, having been built in the 18th and 19th centuries, mostly on man-made islands in the Gulf of Finland. A few are still used by the Russian Navy, but most are abandoned, and in the winter the gulf freezes over and you can walk out to them.
My favorite is Fort "Emperor Aleksandr I", or "The Plague" (built around 1840 and from 1897-1917 used as a research laboratory for plague, anthrax, cholera, etc.).
There's a nice site called Northern Fortress which has some history and plenty of pictures (see the other marine fortresses on there too) and I took a few pictures there and wrote a little article about it too.

November 12, 2007 8:09 PM  
Blogger Jessamyn said...

Excellent post, thanks. I too have been captivated by this place every time I take the train into NYC from Vermont. Next Summer I plan to take the kayak trip out there -- a friend who went this year said it was a load of fun.

November 12, 2007 11:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Boldt Castle isn't a wreck these days -- they've been renovating it. I haven't seen it, but my parents tell me it's beautiful.

Official website.

November 13, 2007 3:27 AM  
Blogger Severn Clay said...

I believe Bannerman's Castle was wrecked by an explosion in the arsenal at some point...there's also the remains of an old cable-drawn ferry from the shore.

Beautiful pictures - its really a kayaker's dream. You can see much of the castle without disembarking on the island.

November 13, 2007 9:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Google Maps view here.


November 13, 2007 10:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The castle also plays an important role in the YA book Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City.

November 13, 2007 2:18 PM  
Blogger Hugh said...

We used to run up here in my dad's boat when I was a kid. He'd dock and I'd run around the island for hours. Always wondered why no one talked about it more.

November 14, 2007 12:03 PM  
Blogger Papierflieger said...

Why are we attracted by ruins? Is it possible to discuss this post in connection with your post I can bear to see no more ruins" If not why ? After WW2 an american travel agency recommended to visit europe as soon as possible as the ruins there would be only for a limited time to see.

November 15, 2007 2:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the old Bannerman catalogs was reprinted in the 1970s. Truly amazing--you could buy anything from African spears and surplus gear from Peary's North Pole expedition to 100,000 uniforms to outfit your army. The story about the shoddy construction that I've heard is slightly different than the "musket barrels" story. As I heard it, Bannerman purchased--or sold-- a large quantity of something that he needed to be smuggled somewhere. This was done by putting it in barrels of cement. The extra cement was used to build the castle. Of course, when you're just using cement as camoflauge, you use the cheapest cement you can get. And that's why the castle was falling apart even before the fire.

November 15, 2007 1:33 PM  
Blogger Cheyenne Morrison said...

Hi Great Post, I am going to add link to the page in my islands blog, and there are several stories about out of the way New York islands in there as well..

November 15, 2007 8:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i've actually been on the island. It's a beautiful place. Also a teacher in my High school wrote a book on the island. Thom Johnson?

November 15, 2007 9:17 PM  
Blogger Grace said...

those pictures are amazing.i definitly want to visit this place.

February 05, 2009 2:47 PM  
Anonymous Georgina Bannerman McDonnell said...

Im very interested in this castle as i have been told of many stories passed through my family, ive heard this castle actually belonged to my family, so i am searching for infomation and researching my family history to find out if there is any truth to it.

Plus it says the castle belonged to a frank 'francis' bannerman, it was infact built by david bannerman in 1901

It would be pretty amazing if it was in my family history :)

Georgina Bannerman McDonnell (

February 20, 2011 6:26 PM  

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