Dance, ceremony, and defense of family and community are foundational expressions of heritage. Yet in Haudenosaunee, especially Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk) culture, a less conventional tradition flourishes.
Like dance, it requires precise choreography.
Like ceremony, it represents a challenging and respected rite of passage.
And like defense, it demands the acceptance of risk and comradery of battle.
This tradition is the proud, but dangerous vocation of ironworking.
Below: A selection of artwork from Walking the Steel.
Ironworking history is rich with stories, its tools and legendary feats finding vibrant expression in the arts. The builders of longhouses and the defining elements of urban skylines, Haudenosaunee contributions to the recovery and reconstruction following the attacks on September 11, 2001 solidified an already remarkable legacy. This exemplary narrative sets the standard for each new generation that navigates the unforgiving steel.
Courtesy of John McGowan.
A VERTICAL FRONTIER
Mohawks strode onto the iron 130 years ago, establishing a reputation that has grown in stature and respect ever since. In 1850 the Dominion Bridge Company (DBC) of Canada undertook construction of the Victoria Bridge several hundred feet above the Saint Lawrence River. The southern span of the bridge fell within the Kahnawake Reserve near Montreal. In exchange for permission to erect the bridge on Reserve lands, the DBC hired Mohawk laborers to quarry stone for its foundation. After hours, local children vaulted around the work site playing tag and climbing the unfinished structure. Their agility attracted the notice of the DBC crews.
In 1886 a second Canadian project, the Black Bridge, provided the opportunity for an experiment. Twelve Mohawk teenagers were trained as riveters, a trade that was hard to fill at the time. The boys took to the job with ease, excelling at the most treacherous job in the industry, and earning them the nickname “The Fearless Wonders.” Soon other Mohawks joined their ranks, apprenticed to existing teams or “gangs” and swelling the numbers of the skilled and willing.
Tragedy struck in 1907 when the south span of the Quebec Bridge collapsed while under construction killing 96 men. Thirty-three of the 96 were Mohawks. With their deaths 5 Kahnawake family names ceased to exist, 24 women were widowed and 56 children were left fatherless. In reporting the accident, The NY Times listed each American and Canadian ironworker killed. The names of the 33 Mohawks were unreported.
Devastated by the tragedy, the women of Kahnawake took action. Going forward, the men would work in smaller crews and on different jobs ensuring that no single accident would ever again incur the loss of so many from one community. Rather than discouraging Mohawks from the profession, the Bridge collapse hardened their resolve and commitment. Eight years later, of the 651 Kahnawake men of working age, 587 had joined the ironworkers union.
Courtesy of Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center
The advent of steel fueled a building boom. Renowned in the industry, Haudenosaunee ironworkers helped to erect such structures as the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, Golden Gate Bridge, George Washington, Triborough, and Verrazano-Narrows Bridges, Rockefeller Center, and the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Border crossings and citizenship created a dilemma for Kahnawake ironworkers coming from Canada. A 1926 US federal ruling acknowledged the Kanien’keha:ka indigenous right to free passage, and further opened employment.
In the late 1920’s and 1930’s, Mohawks from Akwesasne and Six Nations Reserve also took up ironwork. An ad hoc Kanien’keha:ka village formed in the North Gowanus section of Brooklyn. With friends and family living within ten square blocks of each other, sharing meals and news from home, the neighborhood became known as Little or Downtown Caughnawaga. Others made the 740-mile round trip commute each week. “It was a 12-hour drive in those days, everybody went back if they had a way.’’ (Joe Deer, c. 1940) Today the drive takes a little more than half that, but is no less disruptive as explained by Geggs Martin/Kaniehtakeron, “Get home and try and cram in a week’s worth of being a dad and a husband in 2 days and then Sunday we’re off – back to work.”
Little Caughnawaga residents Diane Tarbell and Yvonne Harmon (nee Diabo). c. 1959. Courtesy Reaghan Tarbell.
THE LURE OF THE IRON
The elements that attracted the first Haudenosaunee to the profession still apply today — physical risk, challenge, and high rate of pay. Precisely coordinated teams lift the steel, connect, bolt, and weld, transforming blueprints into tangible tributes to physics and human imagination.
Despite specialized gear and safety precautions, the work remains extraordinarily dangerous. Traversing girders as narrow as 10 inches leaves little room for error. High winds can contribute to a misstep, especially shouldering a 50+ pound toolbelt several stories above the ground.
Reward however, outweighs physical demands and separation from family. It carries the immense satisfaction of participating in an elite tradition and the pride of multiple generations.
Ironworking epitomizes the principles of courage, resourcefulness, responsibility, and cooperation that are integral to Haudenosaunee culture. Although the numbers of those entering the trade has declined considerably since the 1980’s, respect for the profession endures. Haudenosaunee expressive arts continue to acknowledge the central place of this tradition and celebrate those who accept its challenge.
Barry Printup, a Tuscarora ironworker, decorated construction tools with beadwork.
AN UNPRECEDENTED ATTACK,
A SELFLESS RESPONSE
As Americans, we each have a different relationship to the dramatic events of September 11, 2001. The stories of families, first responders, and survivors have been well documented. Each helps us to reflect on the event from a different perspective and deepens our understanding of its multilateral impact. Five-hundred ironworkers were employed in the construction of the World Trade Center from 1968 — 1972. Nearly 200 were Mohawks, primarily from Kahnawake and Akwesasne. With its destruction, the pride and exacting workmanship of fathers, uncles, and community members was extinguished, replaced by an inconceivable sense of loss.
Dozens of Kanien’keha:ka ironworkers including Mike McDonald, George Norton, Richard Otto, Tom Herne, Andy Jacobs, and brothers Chris and Kyle Beauvais, were on construction jobs throughout the City or nearby when the towers fell. In the days that followed, Mohawks joined countless volunteers in the desperate search for survivors. Often working around the clock, the ironworkers alone had the experience and expertise to cut through the mangled steel in advance of the search teams. Unlike their construction, dismantling the crushed and shattered structures offered no guidelines.
In addition to the emotional toll of the task, ironworkers confronted smoke, fires, poor visibility, and razor sharp surfaces. Despite these inhospitable circumstances, many remained to assist for 3 - 4 months after the collapse. The Mohawk’s contributions to the recovery, like those of the non-natives who worked alongside them, all too often came at immense personal cost.
RISING FROM THE ASHES
Twelve years after the attacks, Mohawks were among those who would raise the 758-ton spire atop the Freedom Tower at One World Trade Center. The unwavering resiliency that blossomed in the wake of the 1907 Quebec Bridge collapse had again galvanized the Kanien’keha:ka.
On April 30, 2012 cousins Steven and Adam Cross would bolt a 27-foot girder into position 1271 feet above the ground, reestablishing the Trade Center’s distinction as the tallest building on the NY skyline. John McGowan’s father and grandfather helped to erect the original towers. John himself worked on the recovery. Joining a framing team on the 3rd floor of One World Trade Center McGowan remained on the job until the structure “topped out” on the 104th and its spire was hoisted into place.
They and more than 200 others dedicated their hard-earned skills to the construction of this solemn symbol of resolve and renewal. The words incised into the black marble of the Quebec Bridge Memorial are as apt today as they were at the time of its dedication. “These Kanien’keha:ka did not strive to be heroes…[We] ask that future generations never forget our ancestors legacy and always remember what Kanien’keha:ka can do as
One Freedom Tower Crew.
Crew included Joe McGowan, Joe Flo & Tyler McComber, Preston Horn, Adam & Louie Cross, Randy Jacobs, Marvin & Keith Brown, Peter Jacobs & Turhan Clause. Courtesy John McGowan.