Would anyone in their right mind sign up for a job that had a high risk of mortality/disability? Or a job where red hot metal is being hurled directly at your face? Back in the 1920s this was the lot of the men who built New York’s skyline, the men who constructed the Chrysler Building and the Empire State, giant phallic symbols of America’s burgeoning wealth and power.
In this short clip (remastered and quite decently colorized) from the Smithsonian Channel, we get a brief glimpse of the perils encountered daily on the building site. Nicknamed “roughnecks,” the narrator points out that they work without harnesses, safety ropes, or hard hats. Red hot rivets are thrown at men on the metal beams higher up and they are meant to catch them with what looks like a tin funnel. You can see the thinnest of ropes used to lift the now-iconic stainless steel art-deco eagles into place by men weary felt hats and no gloves.
The workers came from Europe, many who had trained on ships. Some came from Montreal’s Kahnawake reservation. The latter, known as Iron Walkers, were Mohawk, known for working fearlessly at great heights.
“A lot of people think Mohawks aren’t afraid of heights; that’s not true,” Kyle Karonhiaktatie Beauvais said in 2002. “We have as much fear as the next guy. The difference is that we deal with it better.”
Much of this work was documented by photographer Lewis Hine, who captured a mix of brute strength and gravity defying courage along with private moments of rest, catching a smoke or taking lunch. You can see many of his famous photos in this clip:
The Chrysler Building was completed in 1930, and reached a height of 1,046 feet (319 m), featuring 77 floors. It held its fame as the world’s tallest building for only 11 months. In 1931 workers completed the Empire State Building, standing at 1,454 feet (443.2 m) and housing 102 floors. (That’s dinky compared to the current record-holder: Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, which stands at 2,722 feet (829.8 m)).
Heads up: The Smithsonian Channel clip has some of the worst examples of YouTube comments among the videos we’ve highlighted over the year, as if people still don’t work in terrible and unsafe conditions in order to feed their families and pay rent. And look! Here’s a guy who walks out onto the Chrysler eagle just for fun. Don’t say we didn’t warn you:
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.