It was an early summer morning. The sun had not yet risen, yet the building was coming alive with the sounds of the work to come. The workers were already rowdy and their shouts obscene. The foreman, in his crisp white shirt, tie, and derby hat, began to shout directions to the three different gangs. The raising gang began to take their positions on the derrick floor, getting ready to hoist the steel beams up to their comrades. The fitting-up gang, plumbers and bolters, using guy wires and turnbuckles followed to where the raising gang was to tighten up the structure.
"What are you waiting for? My mother can climb faster than you. Hurry up!" the foreman shouted at the riveting gang, the next gang to take part in the assembling of the Empire State Building.
The riveting gang was a crew of four Mohawks from Canada. They were all related, somehow or another, and had been raised in Caughnawaga, except for one young man, Sose Jacobs. Sose's father was from Caughnawaga, but his mother hailed from Oka where he had been raised. Sose's cousin Henry and Henry's cousin Tawit climbed up to the top of the steel.
"Oksa Sose!" yelled Tawit. Hurry up!
Sose quickly followed up. Together, they set up the scaffold they would need to stand on to do their work by laying down six planks of wood on two beams, tied to the steel with ropes. The "heater" and the elder of the four, was Sose's uncle and Henry's father, Louis. The riveting gangs did the most dangerous job of all the ironworkers and were often called the glamour boys of the industry.
There was, however, nothing glamorous about being in a riveting gang. Louis set up his coal-burning forge and began heating the rivets. He tossed a heated rivet to Tawit, the "sticker-in" for today, who casually caught it in a metal can. Henry, today's "bucker-up", was removing the temporary bolts from the two steel beams. Tawit picked up the heated rivet with some tongs and pushed it into the hole where the temporary bolts were. Tawit moved out of the way while Henry, using a dolly bar, held the rivet in place for Sose, today's "riveter", to hammer the malleable rivet into place. This exercise would be repeated all day long, with the men, except for the heater, sometimes changing positions. The clanging and banging of the riveting gang, which made some people feel sick and dizzy, never bothered them. The mingled smells of sweat, oil, and hot steel were as sweet to them as fresh flowers were to a lady.
They were getting close to the top of what was going to be an 86 story building. Standing up that high above New York City was always wondrous to Sose. He sometimes felt like an eagle looking down on everyone going about their lives. But now they were so high up that everything below began to look like a colony of ants. He was not supposed to be afraid of heights, he was Mohawk; Mohawks were known to be fearless. However, he could not help himself today and though he would never admit his fear to the others, he could at least admit it to himself.
The wind began to pick up as the morning moved on, shaking the steel and leaving Sose in a careful balancing act hundreds of feet above the ground. If the wind suddenly stopped, he had to be prepared to stand still; otherwise he might be left leaning into no wind and perhaps falling those hundreds of feet. Looking down on the outside of the building, or even looking down in the inside of the building's structure, "the hole" as they all called it, was giving him the chills. He tried to avoid looking down that morning, unless he wanted to be going into the hole. There was nothing outside or inside that could break his fall, except for the ground.
Looking up was almost as frightening. An old-timer had once told him the worst thing you could do was to look up because you were already there. There was nothing but the sky to look at and the occasional bird and plane. The sway of the building was just as terrifying. There were no walls or ceilings yet to cut the sway to a minimum, so every breath of the wind rattled the steel and rattled the brains of the ironworkers. But one got used to it after the first jolt and learned to work with it. As always, once Sose began riveting one steel beam after another, his fear began to diminish.
Sose was for some reason feeling nostalgic today. He thought of his first day as an ironworker and how the responsibility of his job weighed less on his shoulders back then. He was working on the Graybar Building. He was a "punk", as novices were called. His biggest responsibility was tossing up rivets to the riveting gang. Now, everything he did affected not only him, but his comrades as well. One moment of inattention could put the whole gang in danger.
Before he knew it, the work day was over. Sose climbed down from the platform and the workers all made their way down the Empire State Building. As they descended, Sose wondered about this giant skyscraper he was helping to build. He thought of it as one more steel mountain added to the other peaks of New York City. It was 1930, the United States was at the start of a depression and here they were building another skyscraper, a new symbol of capitalism. He remembered last year, when two architects, William Van Alen and H. Craig Severance, who apparently hated each other, competed with each other to build the highest building in the city. The press had called it the "Race into the Sky". The Chrysler building of Van Alen, even though it was finished after Severance's Bank of Manhattan, won the "race" because of a useless hundred foot long pole planted at the top. Sose found it a bit ridiculous that rich people were building these enormous structures when so many people were out of work. But he also found himself lucky that he still had a job. The Empire State Building had been too far along in construction to halt because of the Depression.
Sose knew that the people of New York questioned the construction of the Empire State Building. It was to be eighty-five stories of office space that really was not needed. John Jacob Raskob the millionaire, and Al Smith, the former governor of New York, however, wanted the Empire State Building to be completed. The architects, the Starrett brothers, were hoping to break every construction record out there when erecting the Empire State Building. And though his job exhausted him, Sose thanked the millionaire and the ex-governor every night for his job.
Sose also remembered the photographer who had come to take pictures of the construction this past spring. Lewis Wickes Hine was famous for photographing child labourers, thus Sose always found it odd that he was photographing ironworkers. He must have needed the cash; everyone needed cash these days. Everyone was also amazed that the shy Mr. Hine, 56 years old, with his scrawny physique and large glasses, climbed up to the top of the building, and hanging in an open steel box, fearlessly began taking pictures of the ironworkers. Everyone felt proud and honoured that someone was taking the time to take their pictures.
When they finally reached the street, all the workers shouted goodbyes to each other. The Newfoundlanders, or "fish" as they were called by other ironworkers, joined the Mohawks on their journey "home", for they stayed in the same area. The Newfoundlanders were called "fish" because they generally stuck together both on and off the job, "swimming" together.
"Good work there boys, eh. We'll soon be finished this job," said Danny Costello, a jovial and friendly veteran.
"Not too soon, I hope. We need the money," replied Louis.
Sose, Tawit, Henry, and Louis all made their way "home" – Brooklyn. "Downtown Caughnawaga" was what they called the area bounded by Fourth Avenue, Warren, Court, and Schmerhorn Streets, otherwise known as North Gowanus. It was a place to stay, but it could never really be home for Sose. When was the last time I was home? It had been so long, he could not really remember. He was sometimes jealous of a few of the other ironworkers who went home to Caughnawaga almost every weekend. "Boomers" they were called, because they left their family at home searching for job after job and returned when the job was done. Sose did not have a car, or any other easy way to get back home every weekend. If he did, maybe he would make the twelve hour drive. But then again, he had Penny O'Donnell, a sprightly Irish girl, to occupy his free time in Brooklyn.
Thinking back on his childhood, Sose never thought he would be living in New York City and building the tallest building in the world. His father had been an ironworker and his uncle still was. But he grew up in Oka, away from the ironworking tradition. Certainly, he heard stories of ironworkers from his father, but he never thought he would be continuing the tradition. His mother made sure to tell him about the Quebec City bridge disaster, which happened the same year that he was born, in 1907. His father was not on that job and neither was his uncle, but thirty-three men from Caughnawaga fell to their deaths when the bridge collapsed. Sose's mother did not want him to become an ironworker, it was too dangerous, she said. She had already had a hard enough time dealing with Sose's father being away all the time. Nevertheless, Sose would defiantly climb the tallest trees he could find, though not as defiantly as he thought, as he did it only when his mother was not around. When he visited his cousins in Caughnawaga he would join them in their imaginary play on the bridge overlooking the Saint Lawrence River. Thus, even though Sose had never thought of himself as becoming an ironworker, looking back at it now, he felt that he was destined to become one, because of his family history in it and because of his daredevil ways as a youth.
Sose's ironwork career began five years ago when his father hobbled down into the cellar and came back up grasping his tools, including a spud wrench, a hammer, and a steel wedge. He handed them over to Sose, like many other ironworkers who handed down their tools to their sons, nephews or grandsons, and gave Sose his blessing to boom out. And though his mother was opposed to it, he followed his uncle and cousins to New York, where he became something important. Back home, the only thing the future had had in store for him was picking fruits for the French farmers, the majority of whom disliked him. In New York, he could do something his family would be proud of and most importantly, something he could take pride in. Though he started out as a "punk", learning the tricks of the trade from his uncle and older cousins, and only running around fetching things, it was not long before he began climbing to the tops of buildings and hoisting steel beams into place.
Though he was homesick at first, Sose quickly began to enjoy life in New York City. It was so different from what he had known. There were so many different people from so many different walks of life that it made his head spin. Working on the Empire State building alone brought him into contact with Scandinavians, Irish-Americans, and Newfoundlanders. He also could not believe the sheer number of people who lived in the city. Back home, he knew everybody's name, where they lived, their stories, but here, each person was a blank piece of paper waiting to be filled up with the story of their life thus far. Sometimes, Sose would sit outside, trying to guess the life story of a passerby for fun. That was how he met Penny.
Sose had just come back from the Empire State building and was so exhausted that he sat on the sidewalk outside of the red-brick tenement where he and his uncle and cousins lived in Brooklyn. He did not feel like going inside. It was a beautiful spring day and the air was not too hot and not too cold. He stretched his legs out as far as he could and just watched people passing by. Sose dozed off for a few minutes. He woke with a start when something kicked into his leg. A young woman with a bag full of groceries went tumbling onto the sidewalk, the potatoes with her.
"Sorry, miss," he said as he quickly got up and began to gather the runaway potatoes. Unfortunately, he forgot to help Penny up from the sidewalk. He realized this, dropped the potatoes he had collected and helped her up.
"I'm okay. I can get up," Penny said. She brushed off Sose's proffered hand and got up. Sose ran to pick up her potatoes again. "You're one of those Indians, right?"
"Yes, miss," Sose replied, handing her back her potatoes.
"I'm Penny, what's your name?"
"So…zeh," Penny tried out his name. "What's it mean?"
"Then I'll call you Joe!"
After their first meeting, Sose and Penny saw each other regularly, first by chance, or so Sose thought. Penny made it her mission to know where Sose was when he was not working or sitting on the sidewalk. At first, Penny thought she could get something out of knowing Sose; ironworkers did make a lot of money and she, like everyone else in the neighbourhood, was dirt poor. But then she was curious about him – his job constructing the tallest building in the city and his origins. She had never known an Indian before. And though his English was poor and he was often not very talkative, she enjoyed spending time with him.
One of the places that Sose frequented when he was not working was at the local pub, the Nevins Bar and Grill. Here Sose met up with many other men and women from Caughnawaga. They would swap stories of their jobs in Mohawk and joke about things from back home. Sose also liked that the Nevins offered some good old Montreal ale. Sometimes, one of the women would bring everyone some Indian bread and corn soup, reminding everyone of home. Every once in a while, when an ironworker was injured or killed on a job, everyone would donate some money into a collection for his widow or family. Those days were the gloomiest because they made each ironworker think of their own mortality and see themselves as the object of a collection. Then there were the rare days when bad blood from back home spilled over to the Nevins. Sose remembered one evening when two men got into a bloody fistfight over something that had started back home and a generation ago. After that, neither man ever showed up at the Nevins when he knew the other one was already there.
On this particular night, Sose, Tawit, and Henry were joined by Penny at the Nevins. Louis was already asleep at the tenement. The half empty pub's only patrons were the ironworkers; they were the only ones who could afford to indulge themselves in a drink or two. The atmosphere in the cozy pub was relaxed and free of worries.
"Is the building nearly complete?" Penny broke into the comfortable silence.
"We should be done by the fall, but the building won't be complete for a while after that," replied Henry.
"And what will yous do then?" Penny asked.
"Go home for a while, I guess," Tawit answered, then took a sip of ale.
"Me too," Henry chimed in.
"What about you, Joe?" Penny looked over at Sose.
"Not sure…" he replied.
"Oh. There doesn't look to be many more building jobs in the city after this one is done. I guess there's no reason for you to stay here. You must be homesick anyway…" said Penny ruefully.
"Oh, he has a reason for staying here alright…" Henry managed to say before Sose elbowed him in the arm.
"Really, what is that?" Penny hopefully probed.
Sose regarded his cousin Henry with a bit of scorn and sarcastically replied, "Niawenko:wa, Henry," Thanks a lot. Henry laughed and then got up and went to another table, taking Tawit with him, who was also laughing. Penny watched the exchange curiously.
"Well, I, um," Sose began, then cleared his throat, "was hoping to stay…"
"Oh, I see."
"I like the city, this city."
"I will visit my mother and father at Oka."
"Canada. Then what?"
"Then I will come back and hope that the rich men of this city continue to build steel skyscrapers so that I can continue to live here."
"And your reason for living here?" Penny quietly inquired.
"Besides good money, there is um, a woman here that I wish, that I hope will be, um, my wife…" Sose replied, blushing. Despite being a hero of the sky, a manly man, and a descendant of the toughest warriors, Sose could not help being nervous at this moment. He had come to think of Penny as his future wife and if she rejected him, being at the top of the Empire State Building still would not be far enough or high enough to hide from embarrassment. Especially with Henry and Tawit being a witness to everything that was happening. "Penny O'Donnell, I am asking you to be my wife."
Penny was delighted. Though she wanted to shout out "yes!" a million times over, she took her time, reveling at the site of Sose blushing and wringing his hands in anxiety. She was not meaning to be cruel, but she knew this would be a rare sight; she had learnt that ironworkers tended to hide their "feminine" emotions. Finally she replied, "Sose Jacobs, I will be your wife!"
The Empire State Building's steel skeleton was topped out in September of 1930. To celebrate, the ironworkers raised the American flag 1,048 feet in the air while Al Smith laid the cornerstone down on Fifth Avenue. The ironworkers then went their separate ways, to other jobs, to home, to no jobs. The completed building was set to open on May 1, 1931. One thing that was certain in that uncertain time – the Empire State Building brought hope and faith to the people of New York in the midst of economic chaos. Hope that their future would reach the limits of the sky, and faith that it would be as strong and stable as the Empire State Building. For the men that helped to build the skyscraper, the Empire State Building brought them a sense of pride, a sense of shared accomplishment that would last as long as they lived. For Sose Jacobs, it also brought to him a future that did not include picking strawberries and eking out a living in a small community where foreigners were a curiousity. He would always return to Oka and Caughnawaga for visits, but the pull of New York and his new life there was greater than it had ever been. He could be much more in the city of dreams than he ever could have been back home.
This was a term paper I wrote in 2010 for a history class. We had the fun option of writing it in the form of a short story. If you'd like the bibliography, send me a message.
I used the old names of the Mohawk communities, what they would have been called back then (by outsiders). Caughnawaga is Kahnawake, across the river from Montreal, Quebec. Oka is still a small village by the Ottawa River (or Lac de Deux-Montagnes, take your pick), located about 40 minutes from Montreal, but the Mohawk community right near it is called Kanehsatake.
. - to see one of Lewis Hines famous photographs.