Yet another traditional craft: Mohawk First Nation ironworkers

This past Monday Steve Cross was in a lot of photos as he and his co-workers attached the the steel column that made One World Trade Center New York City’s tallest skyscraper. The 36-year-old Cross hails from the Kahnawake reserve in Quebec. According to media reports, he’s been an ironworker in New York for about a decade.

Erecting steel bridges and lofty skyscrapers isn’t as old as throwing pottery or repairing watches. And maybe it’s too “big” to be labeled a craft, like calligraphy or taxidermy – though I’d say it’s close enough to blacksmithing to count. In any case, it’s been around a while now, becoming a traditional occupation for some. Cross represents the 4th generation in his family to take on those thrills and risks.

Steve Cross as an apprentice in 2001

Ironworker Steve Cross (as an apprentice in 2001) at the AOL Time Warner Building, New York. (Source: Smithsonian Institution)

Postmedia reporter Douglas Quan was a journalism student at Columbia when the twin towers fell on 9/11. Quan rushed to the scene and reported on the city’s recovery for several months thereafter. For the 10th anniversary in 2011, Quan revisited the topic, including these print and video interviews with Cross. Here’s Cross from Quan’s article:

“It means a lot to me, a young guy coming into the business,” said Cross, who is from the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal. “My father did it, my grandfather, great-grandfather. And I have a lot of friends doing it. Even on this job right now, there’s Mohawks all over the job. It means a lot to see all these familiar faces when you’re coming from so many miles away.”

All across the city, the steel skeletons of some of New York’s greatest landmarks — the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the United Nations, the Chrysler Building, George Washington Bridge — have got the fingerprints and steel-toed boot prints of Mohawk “skywalkers” all over them.

The Mohawk ironworking tradition goes back to the mid-1880s when the Dominion Bridge Company built a railroad bridge across the St. Lawrence River. Blogger Jane Winkler described the evolution of this new heritage thusly:

The Indian bridge men, known then as the “Fearless Wonders,” ventured out across Canada, and made their way into the United States. They recruited from other Tribes, and worked on skyscrapers and bridges from the Empire State Building to the Golden Gate Bridge. A coveted workforce for their skill, experience, and workmanship, they kept their language alive on the job site and taught co-workers. They customized “sign language” into hand signals. This system of communication continues, and is a requirement of ironwork apprentice training. A retired ironworker, Orvis Diabo, was also interviewed in Mitchell’s article. Having worked in 17 states in the US, he said, “When they talk about the men that built this country, one of the men they mean is me.”

You can read more along this line in a 1949 New Yorker article by Joseph Mitchell. It’s long, but interesting. Poetic, even. (Mitchell was considered a pioneer of profile journalism.)  I am not from this region, nor am I old enough to judge the article. Readers, do the people, times and places Mitchell recounts sound accurate?

Over the years, NCPR has done a number of stories on this topic as well, many of which can be found here.

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2 Comments on “Yet another traditional craft: Mohawk First Nation ironworkers”

  1. Ken Hall says:

    When I was a boy my Grandfather was the person who introduced me to the fearless Mohawk “high steel” workers. He had been an iron worker from the early 1920’s through the late 50’s who along with multitudes of men built the bridges, water tanks, and towering skyscrapers of the age. Every project had many men working but they were virtually to a man in awe of the Mohawks who assembled the exoskeletons of these gigantic structures.

    He regaled me with stories of the Mohawks aligning the pre-drilled steel beams, clamping them in place and in an almost unimaginable ballet, similar to wire walking, catching the white hot rivets, thrown from the forger’s furnace, in a steel mesh basket, then funneling them into the holes in the beams to hammer form the heads on them.

    Thousands of iron workers may have worked on each of these iron monsters to bring them to completion; but, literally, hundreds of Mohawks carried the responsibility of assembling the gigantic erector set skeletal pieces, walking about on the beams sans safety restraints. I was in awe then and am today.

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  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I met a Navaho union iron worker at Canyon de Chelleys who had been put out of work by Arizona’s Right-to-Work law. He talked about having visited the NC in the winter and marveling at how you could walk out on the water and go fishing on the ice. He had switched to silversmithing and I bought a bracelet from him. I think about him very time I see it.

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