How Mohawk "skywalkers" came to build New York's skyscrapers.
THE FEARLESS WONDERS
St. Lawrence Bridge 1886
In 1886 the Dominion Bridge Company (DBC) of Canada was hired to build a cantilever railroad bridge across the St. Lawrence River near Montreal. The north end of the bridge lay in the village of Lachine; the south end fell on the preserve of a Mohawk band called the Kahnawake. In order to get permission to build the bridge on Indian land, DBC agreed to employ as many Mohawks as possible as laborers. As work progressed, the bridge builders noticed something unusual about the Mohawks: They were fascinated by the bridge. In fact, the company couldn't keep them off it. They walked all over it, scrambling along the narrow spans hundreds of feet above the river with a grace and agility that wowed DBC's seasoned riveters, most of whom were former sailors, used to working high above the ground on flimsy ropes. Word quickly spread that the Mohawks had something special -no fear.
DO THE "SHUFFLE UP"
As an experiment, one of the foremen decided to train some of the local boys as riveters. Riveting was the most dangerous job in high steel construction, and good riveters were hard to find. He hired 12 Mohawks, all teenagers, and began teaching them the job. As the foreman recounted later, "Putting riveting tools in their hands was like putting ham with eggs." The Mohawk teens were naturals -so good, in fact, that they became known as "The Fearless Wonders." When the bridge was completed, the Fearless Wonders were split into three teams, or "gangs," and hired to work on another bridge, the Soo, spanning Lake Superior between Ontario and Michigan.
Soo Bridge under construction, 1911
Each Mohawk gang arrived with a young apprentice. As soon as the gang trained the new recruit, another new one would be summoned from the reservation. When there were enough men to create a new gang, the Mohawks had what they called a "shuffle up": Old hands were pulled from existing gangs to buddy up with the new guy, creating a new gang. The demand for Mohawk gangs grew, and by 1907 there were more than 70 skilled Mohawk bridgemen working all across Canada, or, as they called it, "booming out."
Quebec Bridge Disaster 1907
On August 29, 1907, while building the Quebec Bridge across the St. Lawrence River near Quebec, 84 bridgemen died when a span collapsed. Thirty-five of the dead were Kahnawake. It was a horrifying blow to the band, and builders feared that the Mohawks would abandon steelwork forever. Instead, young Mohawk men wanted to boom out with the gangs working with high steel. Why? It was the appeal of danger itself. A Mohawk man's place in his community was determined by the respect he earned for acts of bravery. Traditionally these moments had occurred during hunting or in battle. With those avenues largely taken away from them, young men had no way to prove their manhood. But now Mohawk men were wanted by the world for precisely the thing they valued the most: their courage. That's what really attracted the Mohawk to "skywalking." The idea that they had no fear of heights was a myth; they were as frightened as anyone else. But by mastering their fear, the Mohawks earned the respect of their community and the entire world. Best of all, they were paid handsomely for their skills. As a white bridgeman observed, "Men who want to do it are rare, and men who can do it are even rarer."
However, there were changes after the disaster. The Kahnawake women insisted the gangs no longer work together on one single project. From then on they had to split up to spread the risk of widowhood. The men agreed and went back to work. And the work kept coming, fast and furious. The skywalkers decided to boom out across the border, where the skyscraping phase of American architecture was just getting underway in New York City.
The first attempt by Mohawk bridgemen to work in Manhattan ended in tragedy. John Diabo, known as "Indian Joe" to his Irish coworkers, worked on the Hell Gate Bridge in 1915. He soon formed his own gang with three fellow tribe members. They'd been on a job for only a few weeks when Diabo fell of a scaffold and plummeted hundreds of feet to his death in the East River below. When asked what happened, one of the other Mohawks said tersely, "He got in the way of himself." The Mohawks quit and went back up to the reservation in Canada, and that was it for almost a decade.
CLIMBING BACK UP
By 1926 new York was experiencing a frenzy of steel construction, and high-flying riveters were in hot demand. That's when a few Kahnawake gangs came down from Canada to work on the George Washington Bridge, followed by more teams to build Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, and every other significant high-rise and bridge. The Mohawk gangs joined the Brooklyn branch of the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Steel Workers, and settled their families in the North Gowanus neighborhood. Other Mohawk bands joined the original Kahnawake, and together they created the legend of the fearless Mohawk skywalkers, one that has endured for more than 80 years.
A RIVETING JOB
Skywalkers building a bridge or skyscraper during the heyday of high steel construction (1920-1950) fell into three groups:
* Raising Gangs. Buildings were (and still are) put together like giant Erector sets -girders, beams, and columns arrived at the construction site with pre-bored holes labeled with chalk marks indicating where each piece went. The raising gang hoisted the steel piece up to the right spot with a crane, and then attached it to the framework with temporary bolts.
* Fitting-up Gangs. This unit was split into plumbers and bolters. The plumbers worked with guy wires and turnbuckles to align the girders and beams into perfect position. The bolters added extra bolts to secure the piece more firmly.
* Riveting Gangs. These gangs had four workers: a heater, a sticker-in, a bucker-up, and a riveter.
Setting up: The heater was responsible for the small coal-fired stove that heated the rivets. He'd lay a few boards across some beams near the piece to be riveted, set the stove on it, and put the rivets in the stove. While the rivets heated, the other three team members hung a plank scaffold -ropes looped over the beam that was to be worked on, with wooden planks for the men to stand on either side. Then they'd grab their tools and climb onto the scaffold, an unnerving prospect at any height but especially several hundred feet above the ground. There was very little room to move: Any misstep meant almost certain death.
Preparing for the rivet: The sticker-in and the bucker-up would get on one side of the beam, the riveter on the other. Once the rivets were red-hot, the heater grabbed one with a pair of metal tongs and tossed it to the sticker-in, who'd catch it in a metal bucket. The bucker-up had already unscrewed one of the temporary bolts, which was about to be replaced with the rivet.
Putting the rivet in place: The sticker-in took the hot rivet out of his bucket with his own set of tongs and slid it into the empty hole (at this point the rivet looked like a mushroom, with a round "buttonhead" and a stem). The sticker-in then stepped out of the way (carefully), and the bucker-up slipped a backing brace called a hold-on over the buttonhead.
Riveting: The stem of the red-hot rivet protruded through the hold-on and out the other side, where the riveter placed the cupped head of a pneumatic hammer against the stem and smashed the almost-molten lead into a matching buttonhead. The team then walked down the scaffold, repeating the process until they ran out of beams. Then they moved the scaffold and repeated the process until every hole was riveted. Every man on the team knew how to do each other's jobs, and they switched often because the pneumatic hammer was a bone-jarring tool to use. As for the heater, he stayed put, tossing hot rivets with (hopefully) unerring accuracy in a 30-foot radius from his platform.
Riveting is no longer the preferred method of assembling pieces of structural steel -advances in welding and bolting made those techniques safer and just as effective- so the Mohawk skywalkers simply learned the new skills and stayed at work high over the city. More than 100 Mohawk were aloft at construction sites across lower Manhattan when the World Trade Center came down in 2001. They were among the first rescuers at the scene and worked for months to help clear away the rubble of the great towers they had helped erect.
___________________The article above was reprinted with permission from the Bathroom Institute's book Uncle John's Heavy Duty Bathroom Reader.
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