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Mohawk ironworkers build New York:

Booming Out High-rise feats of ironworkers celebrated at New York exhibit

by David Monthorn
New York, New York (AP)

David Rice _ Mohawk
Mohawk ironworkers built Manhattan's skyline, spanned the Hudson and Verrazano Narrows and raised the World Trade Center Twin Towers.

For more than 80 years, these paladins of high-rise have performed dizzying feats to give the city its mighty landmarks.

In tribute to Mohawk skills and bravery in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the National Museum of the American Indian is presenting a photo exhibit about their precarious vocation and rich history, compiled from archives and snapshots of ironworkers on the job.

Booming Out:
Mohawk Ironworkers build New York refers to the transient lifestyle of these Native Americans, who travel from their reservations in upstate New York and southern Quebec to do structural steel work on skyscrapers, power plants, stadiums, arenas and bridges in New York and elsewhere.

Starting in 1916, when they built the Hell's Gate Bridge on the East River, Mohawks have worked on every major building project in New York City, including the George Washington and Verrazano Narrows bridges, the Empire State Building, United Nations and Madison Square Garden.

Mohawks are pictured in hard hats at the World Trade Center guiding steel beams into place and using rivets and bolts to assemble the frame. Hundreds of them worked on that project in 1966-74.

A younger generation was toiling at building sites in Lower Manhattan when two hijacked airliners sliced into the Twin Towers on Sept. 11. In one photo, Herby Kirby faces the camera while, over his shoulder, smoke pours from the North Tower minutes after the first plane struck.

Among Mohawks who built the 1,360-foot towers, their destruction and the deaths of more than 2,800 people evoke sadness and bewilderment.

David Rice, 52, who got his start there as an ironworker apprentice in 1969, said he averted his gaze from the smoky void on the skyline after the attack.

I didn't even want to look, he said. I still don't like to think about it.
Kirby Blaik _ Mohawk

Rice has an arresting photo of himself standing atop the South Tower in September 1971 exactly 30 years before the disaster. He is balanced on a 10-inch girder at the 110th floor, empty space all around him.

Rice's own snapshot of the last girder being hoisted on a cable up the face of the World Trade Center is in the exhibit. The girder was signed by the Mohawks in an old ironworker tradition.

Like his grandfather and father before him, Rice learned to walk iron without the safety harnesses and nets that are now standard on high-rise jobs. He disputes the legend that Mohawks are unafraid of working high up.

I'm scared of heights, the stocky, plainspoken Rice said in an interview. The way I was taught, you put one foot in front of the other, look straight ahead and never look down.

Rice once froze while walking a girder. I had a bucket of bolts on my shoulder. I don't recall how long I was up there alone. Finally, I just walked to safety. No one came out after me because you could lose two men that way.

Ironworkers operate in pairs in all kinds of weather at the windy heights above the city. Heavy beams and other structural materials are hoisted into place by towering cranes, then bolted together by the ironworkers. It's dangerous work requiring teamwork.

Your partner watches your back and you watch his back. You need that trust, Rice said. Nets are strung on the exterior frame to catch falling objects, and every other floor is planked to stop falls.

Mohawks got their start in ironworking in 1886 when the St. Lawrence River was bridged on tribal land in Quebec. Foremen noticed that Mohawks were surefooted on the span and trained some as helpers. They quickly gained a reputation for reliability and courage.

It was on the St. Lawrence in 1907 that 75 ironworkers, including 33 Mohawks, were killed when a bridge under construction at Quebec City collapsed because of a design flaw.

As a result, Mohawk women insisted that their ironworker husbands and sons disperse to a wider array of jobs to lessen the chance of another mass disaster. This led them to boom out to New York and longer stints away from home.

Today the Mohawks in the New York metropolitan area share lodgings and drive home on weekends. The trip north takes six hours on Interstate 87, three hours less than in the old days. Most drive back to New York in the wee hours of Monday, arriving at work just in time to punch in.

It's a hard life, Rice said. The work's tough. The traveling at high speeds is scary. You get very lonely being away from your family so much.

Rice advised his two sons, 27 and 23, not to go into ironworking. One is a school teacher, the other an emergency medical squad member at the Kahnawake (pronounced ga-nuh-WAH-gay) Reservation near Montreal. Rice now works as a steel fabricator on Staten Island, having quit high-rise work several years ago after heart bypass surgery.

Historians say ironworking is reminiscent of the tribal tradition of building long houses. High wages are another attraction. Unionized workers earn $36 an hour and the equivalent in benefits, said Kanatakta, 47, executive director of the Kahnawake Mohawk cultural center.

Paychecks average $1,500 to $2,000 a week, said Kanatakta (pronounced ga-nuh-DAK-ta), who uses one name.

He said 600 to 800 of Kahnawake adult males are ironworkers, about a quarter of the community's work force.

Kanatakta, who comes from family a of ironworkers, said aspiring Mohawks can attend ironworker training programs at the reservation. Most start out working with close relatives to foster confidence and skills.

Fatal accidents or serious injuries are constant concerns. Every Mohawk family has known the anguish of having loved ones seriously hurt or lost on the job, the exhibit notes.

Kanatakta estimated that three ironworkers from the Kahnawake community have been killed on the job during the last 10 years.

Mohawks aren't the only ethnic group in ironworking. Irish, Italians and other nationalities also walk the beams.

The high-rise melting pot is documented in a 1928 photo from Bethlehem Steel's archives. Three Mohawks and eight other ironworkers are sitting on a beam, feet dangling, taking their lunch break high above Rockfeller Center.

 
Copyright © 2002 News From Indian Country,
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