Eagles of construction: the story of overcoming the ‘without vertigo’ Indians who raised the skyscrapers of New York

       
In the image Roger Horne, a blacksmith from Mohawk looking to infinity in a construction between Park Avenue and 53rd Street. 1970-1971.

They did not appear in the photo, but they assumed the most dangerous work that made possible the creation of famous Manhattan buildings. Driving portable red-hot forges at heights of over 350 meters was one of them.

When the horror of September 11, 2001, where the Twin Towers had risen in the World Trade Center, remained a deep hole, the Mohawk Indians felt that part of their history had been destroyed with them. Their ancestors had built those towers, and most of the most iconic skyscrapers in New York, such as the Rockefeller Center or the Chrysler Building. Manhattan would not have been possible without them, the iron warriors, greatly coveted by their lack of vertigo. Or at least, that was the fame that preceded them.

This legend of the Mohawks dates back to 1850 and is located in Canadian lands. The Dominion Bridge Company wanted to build the Victoria Bridge over the San Lorenzo River. The southern section was located within the Kahnawake Reserve, near Montreal, where this tribe lived. So in order to obtain the permit and erect the bridge in the reserve lands, the company had to hire the natives to extract the stone for the foundations.

At the end of the work day, the children of the workers infiltrated the construction and played the pillapilla freely climbing the unfinished structure. They dared to climb a 45-meter structure and run on the iron. The company’s workers tried to scare them off the bridge for fear they would fall, but they ignored them. His agility soon attracted the attention of the company, which saw how to take advantage of this innate gift.

In 1886, a second Canadian project, the Black Bridge, gave the company the opportunity to test small mohawks. Twelve teenagers were trained to work as riveters, a job that was difficult to cover because of their degree of difficulty. The boys began in this technique with ease, excelling in the most treacherous work in the industry, and earning the nickname of wonders without fear.

Laborer Jay Jacobs deftly guides a steel beam in a play between Park Avenue and 53rd Street.

n 1907, tragedy struck them when the southern section of the Quebec bridge collapsed and killed 96 men. 33 of them were mohawks. In reporting the accident, The New York Times mentioned all deceased American and Canadian workers as a tribute. In that list none of the 33 Indians appeared. They were the invisible workers.

But neither the deaths nor the anonymity moved them away from the construction. According to an elder from the tribe cited in a New Yorker article in 1949, “the fatality increased their determination and made this profession gain more interest for them. They were proud to be able to carry out such a dangerous task. Everyone wanted to enter the sector. “.

Eight years after that tragedy, the American Board of Indian Commissioners reported that 587 of the 651 men of working age belonged to the ironworkers union. In the future, men would work in smaller crews and in different tasks, ensuring that no single accident would end the loss of so many members of a community.

Those who played life the most and those who lost the least
On the other side of the border, in New York, the construction boom began thanks to the possibilities offered by steel. And there was a great demand for skilled workers. The distance between the Kahnawake reserve and the Big Apple was 12 and a half hours by car along winding roads. But these Indians wanted to work and knew that wages there were high, so they did not hesitate to go to the promised land. Some moved with their families to a neighborhood near Downtown that eventually became known as Little Caughnawaga, and which had 800 inhabitants.

Despite his skill, the work was extraordinarily dangerous. Crossing beams of only 25 centimeters with a tool belt of more than 20 kilograms left little room for error. If there were also strong winds, a false step could end in a deadly jump without a net. That is why the Mohawks, who never showed fear of heights, always worked with someone they trusted at their side.

The construction of steel structures required three types of work crews: lifting, assembly and riveting. In the latter the mohawks intervened. It was the one entrusted with the most dangerous task – that everything was fixed – and with which they did not dare, or for which they did not reach the necessary skill, the rest of the workers, mostly Irish or Polish immigrants. The riveters had to use portable forges to burn coal until it was red hot at heights of over 350 meters, posing their feet on wooden scaffolding.

They had to mallet the iron to fit the rivets into the holes and then use pneumatic hammers so that the auction was secured. According to the builders, “they handled these tools as if they were running the eggs with ham from lunch.” They were the ones who played the most life, and yet the ones who lost it the least. In the construction of the Rockefeller Center, for example, five people died, none from the tribe. What they did not get rid of was to suffer daily wounds: burned skin, crushed fingers, broken arms, cuts and bruises.

The myth of the lack of vertigo

But did they really have no vertigo? “It is not true that we are not afraid of falling into a vacuum,” confesses Kyle Karonhiaktatie Beauvais, a descendant of the Twin Towers, “but we have the experience of veterans and the responsibility of maintaining a tradition that has given us so much pride” . They are afraid of heights, like any human, but ensure that they manage it better.

Now, the sixth generation of the iron Indians does not have easy to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors. More than 2,000 applicants appear every year to enter the best apprenticeship training school in the US, of which they only have access between 80 and 100. Local 40, an institution associated with the union of steel workers, offers three years training in welding, crane handling and other skills necessary for the profession. And mohawks are not served by historical credentials. Randy Jacobs, one of the instructors, admits jokingly that the admission test is typical of a space program. Among other demonstrations they are required to climb a nine-meter iron beam and lift 11-kilogram weights to an elevated platform as fast as they can. Only a few surpass it.

The elders of that tribe never imagined that their descendants had to fight among thousands of people to make a hole in the heights. Nor did they imagine that their great-great-grandchildren would see those two Manhattan towers that they raised collapse. 200 mohawks worked at the World Trade Center, but they never appeared in the photo. Not even in the mythical instant Lunch in the skyscraper that immortalized a group of workers sitting on a scaffold flying over the sky of New York. They were an invisible myth, a legend, the eagles of construction.

 

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