- Historic Sites
The Great Gun Merchant
August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
Bannerman was fiercely proud of his Scottish antecedents. The family virtually practiced ancestor worship. The first male member of each generation was always christened Frank. Our protagonist’s father was Frank V , he himself was Frank VI (“Francis” was used for business purposes only), and his eldest son was Frank VII . Every edition of the Bannerman catalogue reported the legend behind the surname. According to this story a member of the MacDonald clan rescued the clan banner during the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. King Robert Bruce himself witnessed the heroic deed and, with his own sword, sliced off a strip of the standard, pinned it on the brave MacDonald, and there on the battlefield proclaimed him a “Banner Man.” The family noted pointedly in its catalogue that no matter how it might sound, the name Bannerman was not German.
As Bannerman’s business prospered the firm outgrew one larger location after another, finally occupying an entire block at 501 Broadway in lower Manhattan. This property became the main salesroom and the site of Bannerman’s Military Museum, a superb exhibition of weaponry from harque-buses to artillery, which the owner proudly displayed to the public. But this space could not hold the massive Bannerman purchases from the Spanish-American War, and New York ordinances prohibited the storage of live ammunition in the city. Bannerman now needed an arsenal.
In 1900 his son David was cruising the Hudson River with a friend who showed him six and a half acres of scrub-covered rock called Polopel’s Island, about fifty-five miles north of New York City. Polopel’s Island offered Frank Bannerman space to store his munitions and room to indulge his Scottish affinities.
He bought the island in December of 1900 for fifteen hundred dollars from a private owner and 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.
On the island Bannerman built a huge arsenal styled after his idea of a Scottish castle. On a hill in the middle of the island he built a smaller castle as the Bannerman family home.
The island was under continuous construction for eighteen years. Yet hardly an architect or engineer had a hand in the work. 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.
Bannerman chose well in selecting Polopel’s Island for his designs. Just past the rugged Hudson heights of Breakneck, Crownest, and Storm King Mountain the river opens into a lovely inland sea containing the island. 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. The coat of arms had been designed by Bannerman and included a grapnel symbolizing the grappling he used to do in New York Harbor for old anchors and pieces of chain.
Once through the portcullis, visitors passed along walks flanked by alternating flower beds and gun emplacements that ran between the munitions storehouses and the family’s living quarters. All the rooms in the smaller castle contained proverbs from the Bible, molded on the walls in concrete. Visitors who brought a thirst to Bannerman’s castle were out of luck, since the teetotalling owner had readily signed a covenant when he bought Polopel’s prohibiting any drop of liquor from profaning his island. Armed guards with watchdogs roved the island around the clock and discouraged the uninvited.
This embellished rock in the Hudson was the Bannerman family home in all but the most bitter of winter months. Bannerman grandchildren, their friends, and the employees’ children romped amid history—a gun from Admiral Farragut’s flagship, a cannon from the battle of Yorktown, memorabilia from the sunken U.S.S. Maine .
The family also lived on a virtual powder keg crammed with hundreds of cannon, tens of thousands of rifles, hundreds of thousands of rounds of live ammunition, and tons of gunpowder. Once a workman melting down scrap mistakenly put live ammunition into the pot, “with fatal results,” as a Bannerman publication described the outcome. Another time a cannon being tested against a nearby-mountain jumped, lifting the shell over the intended target and sending it through somebody’s barn. And on a lazy Sunday summer afternoon the powder house blew up, hurling shells and debris over the island but, miraculously, injuring no one. The cause of the blast was never determined.