The Power of Unfinished History

Bannerman’s Castle as it looks today. Via Artificial Owl

We’ve already written about the underwhelming first, and every other impression Penn Station makes upon your arrival – be it on the train, subway or from street level. It makes Soviet architecture look lively and warm. Even during its most packed and maddening rush hour moments, Grand Central Terminal maintains a grandeur that excuses the hustle and bustle of the suburban commuters and bewildered tourists.

The only justification that excuses the madhouse that Penn Station can be is the promise of the beautiful scenery flying by your window no matter your destination – north along the Hudson, New England-bound as you hug the Atlantic or south as the train runs through the Chesapeake region. A word to the wise, the absolute worst time to find yourself in Penn Station is Friday during afternoon rush hour. Not only are tens of thousands of commuters making their way home, a fair amount of them already tipsy, but you’ve got a litany of sold-out Amtrak trains loaded with families on vacation, tourists exploring the US by rail and long-distance commuters trying to get home. It’s a combustible cocktail of exhaustion, anxiety and weariness that can test the nerves of the most hardy traveler.

But even the worst Penn Station experiences can be wiped from the memory quickly. Last Friday, just minutes after departing Penn Station for Vermont, as the train rumbled over the Harlem River into the Bronx, the stressful wait at Penn Station had begun to slip away. As the train made it way up the Hudson with the sun settling gracefully over the Catskills, giving the river a golden hue, the hullabalo that is Penn Station disapeared from my thoughts.

That’s the great thing about the ride between New York City and Albany, no matter the weather or the time of the day, the river and it’s surrounding environs are a cathartic bubble if you’re lucky enough to catch a window seat and find yourself in the right state of mind. At night, the lights of the bridges and the small hamlets on the western banks periodically illuminate the river. In the rain, the raindrops, at the right angle look like skips of rocks bouncing over the water and on partly cloudy days filled with a bright sun, it’s easy to understand why a school of art was named after  the body of water.

For me, the best moment comes about an hour out of New York City. For the entirety of the ride, the Hudson River is dotted with speed boats and kayakers, lighthouses and puttering tugboats hauling barges to the port. While these are picturesque, nothing comes close to the the abandoned structure near Fishkill, that is a few hundred yards from land. It looks like it could be the mansion in Jane Eyre – after the fire.

Having ridden this route consistently since 2003, this relic of another century has always left me wondering – who lived there? What was it like to call that building home in a time when the natural beauty of the lower Hudson Valley must have been less hemmed in and towns and cities along the rivers banks were the exception, instead of the norm? What was it like living there through the coldest of winters where people could cross the river simply by walking on the ice? How stunningly jaw-dropping was it to stand on those grounds in the middle of the most perfect summer nights as the constellations were plastered on the sky as if they were nightlights on a ceiling?

For years, my lack of knowledge allowed my imagination to wander about the Victorian and Gilded era opulence that the mansion once could have been and the stories of the scions and their brood who called the place home. And to the eventual destruction of the place – was it overnight? Did it creep upon the estate as the last of the family line aged and was unable to maintain the building financially, physically or both? What type of Franzenian (yea, I turned his name into a verb) family drama ensued that sealed the fate of this once imposing structure? Could it be restored? Would it make any sense to do that? What would it be like to live in the restored grandeur of a 19th Century mansion in the middle of the Hudson?

One of the castle’s exterior walls – Via HudsonValleyRuins.org

Knowledge may be power, but when it comes to confirming the perceptions you’ve honed for years with little basis besides your imagination and fictional narratives imbued in your psyche from years of English class assigned novels, knowledge can be the ultimate downer. During my last trip to Penn Station on Amtrak, I finally decided to Wikipedia the building that had long enchanted me.

Located on Pollepel Island, the structure is Bannerman’s Castle. Built by Francis Bannerman in the early 20th Century, it was intended for his military surplus business. Bannerman needed a place to store his more than 30 million surplus munitions cartridges because his storeroom on Broadway was, naturally, not the best place for these items. However, when he died in 1918, construction stopped. And that began the downward slide that has left the structure in the dilapidated state it’s in today. A portion of the building was destroyed from an explosion involving 200 tons of shells and powder a few years later. The structure was all but abanoned after the ferry serving the island sank in the 1950s. Just a few weeks before man landed on the moon in 1969, a fire destroyed much of the building. The final ignominy for this imposing castle came just a few years ago when a sizable portion of the structure’s front and east walls collapsed.

Like the Titanic, crumbling away as it suffers at the hands of time and nature, Bannerman’s Castle, standing in the middle of the Hudson, is probably not long for this world. In a decade or two or maybe three, this once glorious, unfinished structure will be no more. Who knows how many riders, from the glory years of passenger rail zipping across the Empire State on the New York Central, to the bleak days of the downtrodden Penn Central or today’s travelers on Amtrak and Metro North let their minds wander as this structure, intended to house military curio and relics, caught their eye? Structures like Bannerman’s Castle may remain unfinished in reality, but their unfinished nature gives our imagination the opportunity to right the wrongs unleashed by the unforgiving hands of time and nature.

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