MNN. June 26, 2013. The Haudenosaunee ironworkers “Ratiristakehron” worked on nearly all the big structures of greater New York: Empire State Building, George Washington Bridge, Chrysler Building, World Trade Center, Triborough Bridge, Verrazano Bridge, Pulaski Skyway and West Side Highway. They worked all over the world, even helping to rivet the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Panama Canal. Mohawks were sent to California to teach ironworkers how to erect with a guy derek.
In 1886 Dominion Bridge of Montreal was building a cantilevered bridge over the St. Lawrence for the Canadian Pacific Railroad. It was partly set on the Kahnawake Mohawk community on the south shore. The Mohawks demanded jobs. Dominion Bridge agreed – assuming they would unload box cars and do other menial tasks. The Indians climbed all over the bridge, “as agile as goats”. They wanted to try riveting. As the work progressed, the Mohawks were found to be at ease at great heights.
Riveting is difficult and dangerous. Rivets were heated until they were red-hot, tossed thirty to forty feet through the air, then caught and forced through steel beams with a pneumatic riveting gun, all standing on a narrow beam 500 feet or more above the ground.
Soon 70 iron and steel riveters were working projects throughout Canada. Men from all Six Nations joined. Mohawks worked 10 years before the international Iron Workers Union was formed. They had always adapted to highly skilled building trades. They were guides for fur trappers, rode rafts for lumber companies, shot the rapids, circus performers and even ‘snake oil’ salesmen.
In 1907 the Quebec Bridge collapsed, killing 96 workers, 35 of them Mohawks. Instead of quitting, Mohawk boys became even more determined to become steelworkers. Construction companies preferred Iroquois iron workers.
By the 1910s they arrived in New York. In the 1930s over 700 Mohawks lived in the old North Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn. Local Italian grocers carried their favorite cornmeal. They hung out at the Spar Bar and the Wigwam Bars. It is said there was a sign, “The Greatest Iron Workers in the World Pass Thru These Doors”.
Their ties to their families and communities were very strong. On Friday nights the steel workers made the twelve-hour trip home to a joyous reception and drove all night back to the city on Sunday nights to be on the job on Monday morning.
Their skill remains a mystery. Some thought it was genetic. Others said they knew how to deal with fear. By the late 1960s riveting had all but disappeared. The Brooklyn community dissolved. The lure of high steel did not disappear. The graves of men who died on the job are marked with steel girders. By the 1990s 20 to 25 percent of Mohawk men were in steel work again. Men who want to do it are rare and men who can do it are even rarer.
As Joni Mitchell sang, “Little Indian kids on a bridge up in Canada, They can balance and they can climb, Like their fathers before them, They’ll walk the girders of the Manhattan skyline … Song for Sharon.
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