Libraries Round the World: Shine a Beacon

Beautiful Beacon, New York is on the Hudson River and only 60 miles north of New York City. The train route from NYC hugs the scenic coastline. The town has historic buildings, a busy main street with gourmet restaurants and an old school creamery, and not just one, but two libraries. 

The overall pace is slower and more relaxed. Pandemic prices have surged as many New Yorkers look for extra space in a commute-friendly location. In September, I was lucky to escape my COVID bound home in Philadelphia to enjoy a perfect, sunny Hudson River Valley day. 

Beacon dates back to 1709, and I can shed some light on the origin of the name. During the Revolutionary War, patriots built a furnace on the top of Mount Beacon, the highest spot around. They were ready to burn wood and send smoke signals when British troops arrived, but luckily, they didn’t need to use it.  

Welcome to the Hudson River and Beacon!

Joseph Howland, a Colonel in the Civil War, founded the first Howland Library in 1872. The library was built in the stick style used for summer houses in Newport, Rhode Island, with vernacular (i.e., functional) Norwegian design elements. His brother-in-law and the famous architect, Richard Morris Hunt, designed it. The building looks like something out of a fairy tale with perhaps a troll or two lurking outside. 

The original library began as a subscription member-only library but changed to a “free” public library in the 1920s. This library building transitioned to the Howland Cultural Center in 1976 when the regular lending library moved to gain extra space. The building is festive all lit up for a nighttime event. But I didn’t see any trolls, or they were hiding that night!

The original library now a cultural center

General Howland, a Mayflower descendent, was born in New York City and served for the Union during the Civil War. He was seriously injured in the leg during a battle and kept on fighting. But, from poor health, he subsequently retired. He and his wife were childless and supported efforts to improve the treatment of the mentally ill. 

His former 350-acre country estate and opulent mansion were named Tioronda, an Indian word for ‘the meeting of the rivers.’ After he died in 1886, his wife donated the mansion and estate to his favorite cause, helping the mentally ill. Tioronda became the Slocum Sanitarium, famously known as the place where Jane Fonda’s mother committed suicide in 1942. Rosemary Kennedy, JFK’s younger sister, lived here for eight years after receiving a lobotomy when she was 23.  

Slocum changed hands and names until Robert Wilson, a wealthy hedge fund executive, purchased it in 2003. He intended to return it to a private residence, sold off the remaining furnishings, but committed suicide before completing the transformation.  

Now it’s finally getting a long overdue renovation into the Tioronda Inn and Spa, scheduled to open in 2023. A happier ending, I hope! I found some images of the ornate mansion and what’s to come. Maybe they will bring back Tioronda’s grand library!

Beacon’s new lending library location, The Howland Library (Part 2), is further down Main Street and closer to the Hudson River. The modern, troll-less building has a beautiful outdoor mural. 

Today’s lending library (opening safely for patrons during COVID)
The Library’s Mural on Main Street

Next door to the library is the used bookstore, Beacon Reads, run by library volunteers with an excellent selection. Every library should have a nearby used book sale facility, particularly for out-of-town visitors.

A take one, leave one mini-library

Beacon is a convenient port town to sail south on the Hudson for 30 minutes to take a tour of Bannerman Island. This island, also called Pollepel, possibly for a Dutch girl named Polly Pell, remains unconnected to the mainland. The island has had a long history of owners until New York State acquired it. 

Our fast-moving motor boat to Bannerman Island

The name Bannerman came from Francis “Frank” Bannerman, a Scottish immigrant and military equipment and ammunition surplus dealer from the Civil War. His stores were in Brooklyn and Manhattan. When he bought dangerous explosives left over from the Spanish-American War, New York City officials refused to let Bannerman store the black gunpowder in the crowded city. 

So, he bought the island in 1900 and built an arsenal and storage facility. And it looks like a castle! Was he dreaming of Scotland? 

The Arsenal with Amtrak passing by on the river bank

Frank Bannerman and his family also enjoyed visiting the picturesque island and built a smaller castle-style residence on the other side of the island, a safer distance from his stockpile of explosive gunpowder. 

The residential castle

Here’s a short one-minute video from the boat ride with apologies for the quality control issues but it gives you a sense of arriving by river.

In 1920, what New York City feared happened. Two hundred pounds of explosives went bang, and the castle arsenal lost the battle and was left in ruins. Later a fire damaged the structure further, and a mudslide didn’t improve matters. The ruins have a raw, abandoned beauty, reclaimed in part by Mother Nature. 

The Arsenal in a sunset glow

On our way to and from Bannerman Island, we admired a sailboat, (in maritime lingo ‘a gaff sloop’) with a beautiful turquoise Goddess-colored hull named the Woodie Guthrie. Folk singer Pete Seeger owned the vessel and named it after his good friend and fellow folk singer Woodie Guthrie. Moored in Beacon’s harbor, the attractive sloop bobbed a greeting, as if saying hello.

Pete Seeger and his wife used this boat and a larger sailboat called the Clearwater to promote keeping the Hudson River pollution-free. During the 2020 pandemic, the nonprofit, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, hasn’t been able to take passengers out on either sloop, but hopefully they can in 2021!  

Dream boat Woodie Guthrie

Here’s an encouraging finale and song for these divisive times. This Land is Your Land was written by Woodie Guthrie and performed at the 2009 presidential inauguration. Ninety-year-young Pete Seeger performed along with a few other musicians you might recognize. Have a listen and a look from my YouTube playlist:

Karen Stensgaard is a novelist, book lover, and avid traveler. She occasionally ventures out in search of libraries during these long, scary COVID days and nights. Stay safe and remember: This Land is Your Land!

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