For Labor Day weekend, I took myself off for a short vacation to the town of Beacon. Just a 1.5-hour train ride from New York City on Metro North’s Hudson Line (the same one you see in The Girl On The Train), it’s the perfect place to get away from the city without going far. The small, picturesque town, home to just over 14,000 people, sits right on the east bank of the Hudson, only two stops away from Poughkeepsie. In recent years, it has become a haven for art and nature lovers from the city.
According to Anthony, the Uber driver who picked me up from the station, most of the people who live in Beacon work as correctional officers or nurses in the prisons and hospitals nearby. They are surprised, he explained, by the sudden influx of visitors over the past few years. But after just 3 days, I didn’t really understand why. For a small unassuming town, it sure has a lot to offer.
Take Dia:Beacon, for example — a contemporary art museum that occupies a renovated Nabisco box factory. It’s within walking distance from the station and features giant, interactive, gram-worthy exhibitions that could turn the fiercest philistine into a highbrow. Located within walking distance from the town station, it’s a seriously cool place worth visiting, even if it’s the only thing you do that day.
Those who venture into town, though, will find that Main Street is just as much of a draw. Lined with coffee shops, craft beer bars, old-school diners, art galleries and mom-and-pop stores, it’s quaint without being cheesy. On the second Saturday of every month, the shops and galleries stay open until 9pm during Beacon’s city-wide art festival, known simply as Second Saturday.
Both history and nature enthusiasts will delight in a hike up Mount Beacon, named for the signal and warning fires that were lit there during the Revolutionary War. The remains of the Mount Beacon Incline Railway are also visible. It was built in 1902 to carry tourists to and from the summit, where they could visit the Beaconcrest Hotel and Casino, or simply enjoy the breathtaking, panoramic view. It stretches to the Hudson Highlands, the Catskill Mountains, and, on a clear day, even New York City.
Unfortunately, the railway weathered many hardships over its lifetime and finally succumbed to fire during the 1980s. In 1995, its remains were conserved by Scenic Hudson.
Beacon is home to quite a few ruins, actually. There is also a desolate cemetery, a vacant school, an abandoned brick factory and a haunted sanitorium that once housed Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of author F. Scott. Perhaps the most intriguing of all, though, is the crumbling fortress floating on Pollepel Island in the Hudson.
Bannerman Castle is visible from the train ride to Beacon, but visitors can get a closer look by joining a tour of the island either by boat or kayak. The boat tour leaves from Beacon Institute Dock and takes about 10 minutes to reach the island. A tour guide then leads you up a 72-step staircase and around the various structures that still remain while giving an account of the island’s long and colorful history.
Bannerman Castle Trust describes Pollepel Island as a once “uninhabited place, accessible only by boat [that was] considered haunted by some Indian tribes.” Also referred to as Bannerman’s Island, it was ‘discovered’ during the early European navigation of the Hudson and was later used in battle against the British. “Pollepel” means “wooden ladle” in Dutch.
Close to a century later, the castle’s eponym was born. Francis Bannerman VI emigrated from Scotland to Brooklyn with his family in 1854. While his father was away at war, Bannerman began a successful military surplus business and purchased Pollepel Island in 1900 to build an arsenal. In addition to the castle used for storage, Bannerman also built a summer residence at the top of the island for him and his wife.
Helen was a skilled gardener and planted flowers along the walking paths which still remain today. On the side of the castle that faced the western bank of the Hudson, Bannerman cast the name of his business into the walls, serving as a giant advertisement for anyone passing by.
After Bannerman died in 1918, construction was halted. Just two years later, 200 lb (91 kg) of shells and powder exploded, destroying part of the castle. When the ferry that had been serving the island later capsized in a storm, the entire arsenal was abandoned. The castle and island were bought by New York State in 1967.
There are plenty more details and stories about Pollepel, both factual and fanciful, but I’ll leave them to be discovered by those who want to take the tour. The castle and island have featured heavily in pop culture too, making appearances in movies like Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) and Against the Current (2009).
Beacon is a 1.5 hour train ride from Grand Central Station on the Metro-North Hudson Line. Walk to Main Street or Dia:Beacon, or use the Beacon Free Loop to catch a ride.