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Raising Steel


A group of Kahnawake ironworkers in the 1950s.

Danny Doyle grew up in the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighbourhood of Bay Ridge, the sixth of eight children of Newfoundland-born ironworker Fred Doyle. His father’s friends were mostly ironworkers and most were former Newfoundlanders who left home for New York in the middle of the last century. They said goodbye to a place of high un­employment and dismal prospects to risk life and limb raising the steel columns and beams that formed the frames of some of the New York’s most famous skyscrapers.

These men earned good money, lived in the same sections of Brooklyn and frequently spent their off-hours together. “My dad played the accordion,” recalls the younger Doyle, “and he used to have the boys over on Saturday nights. They’d have a few drinks and start playing the music from back home.”

Fred Doyle left Newfoundland in 1946 and returned only twice, each time on family vacations with some of his children. He got a job raising steel, as they say in the trade. He stuck with it till he retired in 1986 and two decades later—in 2007—he died still calling himself an ironworker. “He worked all over the city,” Danny Doyle says, his voice swelling with pride. “He put up a lot of buildings. He was one hell of an ironworker, I’ll tell you that.”

He was also a big influence on Danny, now 51, who took up the trade after leaving school in 1979. He spent more than two decades working hundreds of feet above street level, but a few years back he hung up his tools and took a position as a business representative with a New York local of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers. “I was doing odds and ends after high school,” he recalls. “Dad said: ‘Why don’t you try it. If you don’t like it you can do whatever you want.’ I tried it and I loved it.”

Bill Sears grew up the son of an ironworker as well, but his childhood was considerably different. Sears is a Mohawk Indian from the Akwesasne Reserve, which straddles Ontario, Quebec and New York State near the city of Cornwall, Ont. His father was ‘Big’ John Sears—a nickname earned because he stood six-foot-five and weighed 360 pounds—and he worked on numerous projects in New York City and elsewhere in the state. He typically left home on Sunday nights or early Monday morning and was usually gone till Friday afternoon. But ‘Big’ John always had lots of company, his son recalls, because many other Mohawk men were itinerant ironworkers as well.

A Kahnawake ironworker atop a column in New York City in the 1960s. [PHOTO: KANIEN’KEHAKA ONKWAWENNA RAOTITIOHKWA CULTURAL CENTER]

A Kahnawake ironworker atop a column in New York City in the 1960s.

Sears, currently 60, quit school in the spring of 1964 and three days later enrolled in an ironworker apprenticeship program on Broadway Avenue, near Chinatown in the big city. “I always wanted to be an ironworker,” says Sears, now retired and running a restaurant on the reserve. “It was the only thing you heard about as a kid. All my friends’ dads worked together. It was a way of life. It’s gone on for generations.”

The Mohawks first displayed their knack for ironwork in 1886 when the Grand Trunk Railway was building a bridge through the Kahnawake Reserve on the south shore of the St. Lawrence west of Montreal. The Dominion Bridge Company, which was erecting the edifice, hired Mohawk labourers to build the stone piers that supported the foundation. But when the day’s work was done, the children of these native Canadians treated the construction site like a giant piece of playground equipment. They scampered high and low, end to end—oblivious to the hard-charging river beneath them. “Young Mohawks would run across the iron playing tag,” says Akwesasne resident Mike Swamp, a third generation ironworker whose 32-year-old son Owen has taken up the trade of his forefathers. “The guys watching them said, ‘These boys get around steel pretty good.’”

From that observation, a tradition was born. Dominion Bridge hired a dozen teenagers from Akwesasne and trained them as ironworkers. Others soon followed and the Mohawks earned a reputation in the trade. They were quick, agile and capable. They seemed to have no fear of heights, and were soon working on major projects. One of the most famous, in the lore of this dangerous profession, was the Quebec City bridge—a cantilevered structure that was being built several hundred feet above the St. Lawrence in 1907. It collapsed and 33 Mohawks plunged to their deaths.

Most were from Kahnawake. Afterward, the women of the reserve declared that never again would so many Mohawk men be employed on a single project. That may explain, in part, why aboriginal men from Kahnawake, Akwesasne and the Kahnesetake Reserve northwest of Montreal have had a hand in building so many landmarks, especially in New York City. Name a major project of the past century—the Empire State Building, the George Washington Bridge, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the World Trade Center—and chances are the Mohawks were there when they went up.

The same, in fact, can be said for the Newfoundlanders, though their origins in the trade are a little more obscure. “No one knows for sure when the first Newfoundlander left the water and took to ironwork, but the turn of the last century is a good bet,” wrote New York journalist Jim Rasenberger in his 2004 book, High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World’s Greatest Skyline. “The Newfoundlander would have been a natural for the work…. He would have possessed the sea legs and the rigging skills that were so important to the job.

“He would also have been accustomed to working hard under risky circumstances and not fretting too much about it,” Rasenberger continued. “Compared to hauling seal carcasses across a shifting icefield in Labrador, or climbing a ship’s mast on a stormy sea, the feat of balancing on a steel beam several hundred feet above the streets of New York was a cakewalk.”

Two ironworkers on the job in Michigan, April 2007. [PHOTO: ROBERT I. CARR]

Two ironworkers on the job in Michigan, April 2007.

Legend has it that the first Newfoundland ironworker was a man named Frank Treahy from Conception Harbour, who quickly sent word back home that there was steady work and good wages to be had erecting skyscrapers in New York. Other Newfoundlanders heeded his call and by around 1900 they were an established presence among the city’s ironworkers. And because they tended to swim in schools—or stick together on and off the job—they soon came to be known as “fish.” The moniker stuck and when their sons took up ironwork they were called “fish offspring.”

By the 1930s, Newfoundlanders represented about a quarter of the membership of Ironworkers Local 40, which covers Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island and Westchester County. Some rose to prominent positions in the union. In 1939, Newfoundland native Jim Cole was elected president and served till 1950. Ray Corbett, whose family hailed from Harbour Main, succeeded him. Ray Mullett, the son of an ironworker from Oderin in Placentia Bay, took over from Corbett. He, in turn, gave way in the early 1990s to a native Newfoundlander named Jack Doyle.

Bob Walsh, the current business manager of Local 40, joined the trade in 1963 and worked with many men from Newfoundland. In recent years, he says, the number who actually hail from the province has been reduced to a trickle. That is not the case with the Mohawks. They are represented by Local 440 of Utica, N.Y., one of the three oldest Ironworker locals in the U.S., and Swamp says there are still over 500 members of aboriginal ancestry.

For all the changes that have taken place over the years in building techniques and construction materials, ironwork remains a dangerous trade. The men—and this is for all intents and purposes a male profession—work in five-member crews known as raising gangs. One man works near the huge derricks that lift the steel and he attaches individual beams or columns to a hook so the derrickman can raise them to the work site. A second uses a long piece of rope called a tagline to guide the ascent of each piece and to ensure that they do not strike a wall, a beam or fellow worker. Two connectors attach the beam or column with bolts and a foreman oversees their work. Another team known as the bolting gang works two or three storeys below and puts washers and nuts onto the bolts and tightens them.

These are the men who spend their days walking back and forth on narrow beams, some only 10 inches wide and sometimes 80 or 90 storeys above the street. Since time is money in this business, they work fast. “You drop the tagline, you put in the bolts and the next piece is coming up,” says Sears. “It’s go, go, go all the time.”

Generally speaking the higher they go, the worse the weather gets, especially the wind. “Sometimes you have to walk all hunched over or you’ve got your arms out like a tightrope walker,” Sears adds. “Your senses are always very alert when you’re up there. You’re very aware of what you’re doing. I thought about falling a few times, but didn’t like the thought of it so I didn’t think about it anymore.”

The remains of the Quebec City bridge after its collapse in 1907. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C009766]

The remains of the Quebec City bridge after its collapse in 1907.

According to Frank Migliaccio, executive-director of safety and health at ironworker union headquarters in Washington, rules have been in place for many years stipulating that workers had to be “tied off” at certain heights above street level depending on their job. Prior to July 2001, they wore a specially-designed body belt around their waists. The belts came with cables that could be attached to anchors in the beams or columns. But a man who fell could end up dangling upside down until being rescued or, worse still, the impact of the fall could snap his back.

The new regulations stipulate that ironworkers must wear a full body harness with loops around the legs and shoulders and with tethers that are attached to a D-ring in the centre of the back. This equipment, says Migliaccio, is designed to ensure that a worker will hang upright should he fall. As well, a rule that came into effect this year compels contractors to install solid decks, planks or nets every two floors, or 30 feet, whichever is less, below the uppermost level of the structure.

Despite these steps, eight ironworkers had died on the job by the end of July this year, six of them from falls, in most cases because they weren’t tied off. In 2008, there were 23 fatalities and in 2007, the worst year yet in this decade, 33 workers fell to their deaths. Migliaccio points out that there are 127,000 active ironworkers in the U.S., meaning that the fatality rate is quite low. “Still,” he adds, “one is too many.”

Almost every veteran of the trade knows a fellow worker who has been injured or lost his life. For some, it hits very close to home. Ed St. John is a retired ironworker who was born in Conception Harbour, Nfld., but has lived for many years in the New York borough of Queens. One of his sons followed him into the business, but is now living on a disability pension. “He was injured at work,” says St. John, who was reluctant to discuss the exact nature of the injuries. “He took a fall and that was it. He was inside the building, a barricade collapsed and he went in the hole. He was pretty much beat up.”

Sears says he witnessed eight or nine men suffer serious injuries and saw three others take what he calls “the final plunge,” two in New York and one in Hamilton, Ont. “When it happens you get the hat out and pass it around for the widow or the family,” he says. “Everyone goes to the wake and the funeral and there’s a lot of reminiscing about the jobs you worked on together.”

Curiously enough, there are no monuments or memorials, at least on the Mohawk reserves, to commemorate those who have died on the job. However, Sears owns a 20,000-square-foot building near his dining establishment, the Sunflower East Restaurant, and he hopes to turn it into an ironworker museum. He has been visiting the archives of television networks in New York City looking for footage of men at work on bridges, skyscrapers and other structures. As well, he owns an extraordinary collection of photos of ironworkers at various construction sites and has lined the walls of his restaurant with them.

It is a measure of the pride such men take in their hard and dangerous work. The stories they tell is another. Sears, for example, was in midtown Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, his object being to purchase tickets for an upcoming prizefight. He walked into a restaurant to get breakfast and everyone in the place had their eyes fastened to a television screen. They were watching news reports of the first plane to hit the World Trade Center.

He walked over to Times Square and found it at a complete standstill. Cars were stopped in the street. The famous yellow cabs were silent. Horror-struck pedestrians stood watching events unfold on a giant TV screen over the square. Sears joined them in time to see live news footage of the second aircraft plowing into the complex. His reaction: “I said ‘Holy s–t, that’s my building.’”

And in a sense it was. He went to work on the project in early April 1969 when it was merely an enormous excavation—16 acres in extent and 122 feet deep. It took some six months before they’d raised the first giant iron columns above street level and Sears was still on the job 41⁄2 years later when they completed the second of the famous twin towers. “Nelson Rockefeller, who was the governor of New York State at the time, came to one of our Christmas parties,” he recalls. “It was on the 13th floor of the first tower. He presented all the ironworkers with platinum key chains and platinum pen and pencil sets. Waiters in tuxes served us drinks in crystal glasses and we were all dressed in work clothes.”

Ironworkers rarely forget the big jobs they work on, or the enormous buildings they erect. Nor do they ever completely leave the trade behind, even when they’re too old to scuttle back and forth on narrow beams high above ground. “You never stop being an ironworker,” adds Doyle. “When you retire, you become an honorary member. You’re an ironworker till the day you die.”

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