Watch the Completely Unsafe, Vertigo-Inducing Footage of Workers Building New York’s Iconic Skyscrapers

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:

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Paris, New York & Havana Come to Life in Col­orized Films Shot Between 1890 and 1931

A Light Show on The Empire State Build­ing Gets Synced to the Dead’s Live Per­for­mance of “Touch of Grey” (6/24/2017)

Famous Archi­tects Dress as Their Famous New York City Build­ings (1931)

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 and/or watch his films here.

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