Native Village 
Youth and Education News

September 2013

The Mohawks Who Built Manhattan
Condensed by Native Village

New York: One bright September day, Mohawk ironworkers were startled by a jet that suddenly roared overhead. It was barely 50 feet from the crane they were using to set steel girders in place.

“I looked up and I could see the rivets on the plane, I could read the serial numbers it was so low, and I thought ‘What is he doing going down Broadway?’” recalls crew leader, Dick Oddo. They watched in disbelief as the plane crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers just 10 blocks away.

At first, Oddo thought it was pilot error.  Then another jet flew by.

“When the plane hit the second tower, I knew it was all planned.”

Mohawk crews working in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, immediately headed to the disaster site. Many had helped build the 110-story World Trade Center where fires now raged. They knew that steel weakens and melts under extreme heat. and their familiarity with the buildings enabled them to help survivors escape more quickly. And when the towers came crashing down, they joined in the search for victims.

In the following months, Mohawk ironworkers volunteered to help in the cleanup. There was a terrible irony in dismantling what they had helped erect.  Hundreds of Mohawks had worked on the World Trade Center from 1966 to 1974. The last girder was signed by Mohawk ironworkers, in keeping with ironworking tradition.

Mohawks have been building skyscrapers for six generations. The first workers came from the Kahnawake Reservation near Montreal where, in 1886, the Canadian Pacific Railroad planned to construct a bridge across the St. Lawrence River. The cantilever bridge would land on reservation property. In exchange for using tribal land, the railroad and Dominion Bridge Co., agreed to employ Mohawks  during construction.

They had only planned for the Indians to unload supplies, but that didn’t satisfy the Mohawks. Members of the tribe would go out on the bridge during construction every chance they got, according to a 1949 New Yorker article.

“It was quite impossible to keep them off,” said a Dominion official who said the Indians showed no fear of heights. “They would climb up and onto the spans and walk around up there as cool and collected as the toughest of our riveters, most of whom at that period were old sailing-ship men especially picked for their experience in working aloft.”

Impressive perhaps, but Kahnawake ironworker Don Angus says his ancestors were just teenagers who dared each other to climb the 150-foot structure and “walk the iron.”

Company worker tried chasing them off, but the Mohawks kept climbing and getting in their way.  The Indians were especially interested in riveting, one of the most dangerous -- and highest paid -- jobs in construction. Few men wanted to do it; fewer could do it well. Sometimes there were too few riveters to meet construction demand, so Dominion Bridge trained a few of the persistent Mohawks. 12 young men -- enough for three riveting gangs -- were trained.

“It turned out that putting riveting tools in their hands was like putting ham with eggs,” the Dominion official declared. “In other words, they were natural-born bridge-men.”

After the Canadian Pacific Bridge was completed, the young Mohawk ironworkers worked on the Soo Bridge, which spanned the St. Mary’s River and connected Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. Each riveting gang brought a Kahnawake apprentice to learn the trade on the job. When the first apprentice was trained, a new one came up from the reservation. By 1907 more than 70 skilled structural Kahnawake ironworkers  were working on bridges.

Then tragedy struck. American structural engineer Theodore Cooper had designed the Quebec Bridge, a cantilevered truss bridge extending 3,220 feet across the St. Lawrence River above Quebec City. The Quebec Bridge Co. was strapped for cash and accepted Cooper's design because it specified far less steel than most bridges of that size.

As the bridge grew, disturbing bends in the structure were explained away by Cooper and the builders, Phoenix Bridge Company, as damage caused offsite before the beams were set in place. No one wanted to admit that the expensive bridge seemed unable to bear its own weight.

On Aug. 29, 1907, the bridge collapsed, killing 75 men. 33 were Mohawk -- about half of the tribe’s high-steel workers.

 But the tragedy didn’t turn Mohawks away from ironworking.

“It made high steel much more interesting to them," said an elderly Mohawk man.  "It made them take pride in themselves that they could do such dangerous work. After the disaster . . . they all wanted to go into high steel.”

Less than 10 years later, 587 of the 651 men in the tribe now belonged to the structural steel union. But the Mohawk women wanted to prevent so many of their men from dying in one accident. They insisted the men split into smaller groups and work on a variety of building projects. That’s when Mohawk ironworkers "boomed out" -- tribal slang for scattering away from home to find high-steel work.

Mohawks had worked in New York City as early as 1901, but in the 1920s they came in large numbers. They worked in tight-knit four-man gangs during a massive building boom, then for Depression-era public works, and later during  post-World War II prosperity. While they still came from Kahnawake, they also came from other reservations, including Akwesasne in upstate New York.

Mohawk high-steel men worked on virtually every big construction project in New York City:

Empire State Building, the RCA Building, the Daily News Building, the Bank of Manhattan Building, the Chrysler Building, the United Nations, and Madison Square Garden.

They continued building bridges, including
the George Washington Bridge, the Bayonne Bridge, the Triborough Bridge, the Henry Hudson Bridge, the Hell’s Gate Bridge, the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, and more.

During the first half of the 20th century, construction of steel structures required three types of work crews: raising gangs, fitting-up gangs, and riveting gangs.

The steel columns, beams, and girders arrived at the construction site cut to size with holes for rivets. Code marks indicated where each was to be placed. 

The raising gang used cranes to lift the steel pieces, set them in place, and loosely joining them with temporary bolts.

The fitting-up gang tightened the pieces, ensured that they were plumb, and inserted more temporary bolts.

The four-man riveting gangs is where the Mohawks excelled. Because of the dangerous nature of the job, riveters preferred to work with partners they trusted. for Mohawks, this meant relatives and fellow tribesmen.

Though ironworking technology has improved, 35 - 50 ironworkers still die on the job each year. 75% of these deaths are from falls.  Oddo's grandfather died in a fatal fall, and his dad died while driving home from a construction site. Many graves of fallen steelworkers at Kahnawake are marked by crosses made of steel girders.

The pay continues to draw in Mohawks: Ironworkers now earn about $35 an hour plus benefits. In busy times, they earn $65,000- $70,000 a year.

In 1927 a federal court ruled that the Mohawks could pass freely between Canada and the U.S. since their territory had included portions of both nations. Since the drive from New York City to Kahnawake took almost 12 hours, many families decided to move to Brooklyn instead.

By 1960, around 800 Mohawks lived there. A Mohawk steelworker conclave had sprung up near Fourth Avenue and Atlantic Avenue, with grocery stores stocking their favored o-nen-sto cornmeal and churches offering services in their native language.

But just 10 years later, few Mohawks remained. The new Adirondack Northway cut the drive time between New York and Kahnawake in half. Along with a growing pride in Indian culture and rising crime in NYC, most Mohawk ironworkers decided it was time to go home.

Today most high-steel Mohawks live in the city during the week and drive home to Kahnawake and Akwesasne every weekend. But work has slowed since the World Trade Center towers collapsed. More builders are using reinforced concrete. It goes up faster, requires less height for the same number of floors, is easier to modify during construction, and is more resistant to heat.

On the other hand, steel is much stronger than concrete, and steel-framed buildings are easier to modify for successive tenants. Because of that, many experts say that steel structures will never completely disappear. That suits the Mohawks, who have made high steel a tribal tradition.

But why would people with deep traditions centered in the earth build skyscrapers in a city, high above it?  Anthropologists, construction companies, and even the Mohawks have debated why the tribesmen became skywalkers and why they remain high-steel workers today.

An official at the Dominion Bridge Co., which trained the first Mohawk ironworkers in 1886, claimed they had no fear of heights. He even compared them to sure-footed mountain goats.

Some have said that the Indian tradition of walking one foot in front of the other on narrow logs over rivers suited them for walking the thin girders of a bridge or  skyscraper. But the assumption of a natural balance and agility is probably fictional: Mohawks don’t die in lower numbers than other ironworkers.

Anthropologist Morris Frielich suggests a cultural lure for ironworking. He compares high-steel Mohawks to warriors who risked death and returned with booty. Others suggest that the risky work gave tribesmen a chance to test and display their courage.

While many Mohawk ironworkers are proud of doing a dangerous and important job, they dispute the idea that they’re not afraid of heights. Kahnawake ironworker Don Angus says Mohawks simply “have more respect for heights. You’ve got to watch it up there.”

On the other hand, some historians and Mohawks cite the tribes’ ancient tradition of building longhouses as proof that building is in their blood.

“It’s a hand-me-down trade, and it’s tradition,” says Angus. “My grandfather and his grandfather worked on iron.”

Akwesasne ironworker Mike Swamp agrees: “My father was an ironworker. My son is an ironworker. It’s a family tradition.”  

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