Trail Notes: Got Gunpowder?

Remains of Bannerman's warehouse on Pollepel Island in the lower Hudson River

Remains of Bannerman’s warehouse on Pollepel Island in the lower Hudson River

An afternoon boat excursion with the elders introduced us to the odd legacy of Francis Bannerman VI, who at the turn of the century built an arms-dealing empire, based right here in the Hudson River, just upstream from West Point.

Some great summaries of Frank Bannerman and his legacy have been written up here, here, and here, but a quick summary is this: between the American Civil War and World War I, Frank Bannerman essentially founded the military surplus industry, established himself as a powerful international arms dealer, and made a profound influence on American culture by marketing military goods as vital accessories of American manhood.  And he also played a bit fast and loose with his gunpowder than we might think sensible today.

Our little group met the tour boat at the Beacon dock on a Saturday afternoon, and the good people of the Bannerman Castle Trust ferried us out to Pollepel Island.  Our boat pulled up to a small dock against a wall thought to be the remains of a magazine that exploded in 1920. Exploded, as in more than 200 pounds of black powder and shells mysteriously ignited one night, firing a giant blast of concrete, fire, and smoke high into the sky, and pelting local farms, homes, and villages with projectiles blown outward from the structure.  The New York Times reported the next day:

A barrage of shot and bullets from the stores of ammunition which were exploded, accompanied by a dense cloud of smoke, prevented boats which set out from the shore from reaching the island for some time.

This was two years after Frank Bannerman had passed away, but the Bannerman family’s neighbors for years had tolerated Frank’s penchant for weaponry and gunpowder.  One of the tour guides told us that Bannerman had a habit of firing off one of his antique cannons from the small “castle” he’d built as a vacation home for his family at a high point on the small, rocky island. In the fashion of his day, Bannerman was obsessed with his genealogy and Scottish heritage (his family came to Brooklyn from Scotland when he was a boy) and designed Scottish-themed structures in his sketchpad, which he then paid laborers to construct for him. He set up cannons as part of his castle complex, and was said to make play at firing cannonballs in the direction of ships coming downriver. The day we visited the island was West Point’s “R-Day,” when the U.S. Military Academy received its new class of cadets with booming howitzers, in keeping with Bannerman’s tradition of saying “welcome” with an earthshaking boom.

Frank Bannerman was a teenager when the Civil War began, and his father left Brooklyn to join the U.S. Navy, leaving Frank at home as the breadwinner. He worked days as a runner for a law firm, and in his spare time, he scavenged rope and scrap around the Brooklyn Navy Yard to sell as salvage. Frank’s father returned from war with a disability, but the two Bannermans founded a military surplus business–THE military surplus business–which was touted in catalogs for years to come as being founded in 1865. The Bannermans first located the business on Little Street, and then Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, before moving onto Broadway in Manhattan.

But then there was the gunpowder.

Even sensible Brooklyn folk (and city regulators) were reluctant to see large stores of gunpowder stockpiled locally. By 1900, Frank Bannerman had become a magnate for weapons and ammunition, and he’d already purchased 90% of all goods the U.S. military had captured in the Spanish-American War–by sealed bid. He moved his stores of powder, ammunition, and numerous arms and other military goods to the island, and maintained his showroom, museum, and catalog empire at 501 Broadway. And there were various practical uses for gunpowder aside from selling it to militias or armies. Need to sink some barges to make a loading platform for ships? Gunpowder. Have an idea for a fresh water cistern? Gunpowder. Want to make the cistern bigger? More gunpowder. (The cistern finally collapsed on itself.) And then there was the firing of cannon at random ships.

Frank Bannerman seemed to have been a fascinating personality, and he certainly was an industrious businessman, but it was unclear by World War I whether his sales were more profit-driven or patriotic, or where the blend of both sentiments was exactly. He had outfitted the Japanese army against the Russians in 1905, and in December 1914, he cabled the Lord Mayor of London with an offer to outfit 1,000 Scottish National Guardsmen with full arms and supplies. The next year, he donated 1,000 Springfield rifles to the British army. In September of 1918, he donated two 6-inch caliber cannon to the U.S. military, along with $20,000 for mounting them. (The U.S. had entered the war in early 1917.) But it had been in question from the summer of 1917 until his death in November 1918 whether he was on the up-and-up with pricing of thirty of the six-inch guns, which he had sold to the U.S. military for $450,000.  He had originally purchased the guns from the U.S. Navy as salvage for $78 apiece. The matter was investigated in Congress, and it was ruled that the government had accepted this pricing, so it would stand. But the charge of profiteering was said to torment him for the final year of his life.

The November 28, 1918 obituary in the New York Times headlined:

F. BANNERMAN, ARMS DEALER, DIES

Broke Down from Overwork in Shipping His Gift of 50,000 Garments to Belgium.

GAVE TO ALLIES $135,000

Owner of Island Arsenal Was Charged in Congress with Profiteering.

He had died at a hotel in Brooklyn, and it was said that his overwork in refurbishing and shipping uniforms to Belgium. The armistice ending the war had been just days before, on November 11, 1918. The Bannerman family carried on the military surplus business until the 1950s, and the island was given to the Taconic Park Commission in 1967, Today the Bannerman Castle Trust maintains the island, and attempts to preserve the remaining structures and share its eclectic history with the public.

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