November 21, 2006
Mohawks who walk the high beams
More than a century has passed since it became public knowledge that members of North America’s Mohawk Nation had a talent for working in high places.
Mohawks are particularly adept at ironwork on tall skyscrapers, bridges and other structures, where being placed in precarious situations is routine for them.
As construction begins on the Freedom Tower in New York City on the site of the former World Trade Center, respect for Mohawk iron workers has piqued once again.
The Mohawks’ lack of fear scaling heights was noticed in the 1880s during construction of a bridge linking Kahnawake Reserve with Montreal.
“At night, young Mohawks would run across the iron playing tag,” said Mike Swamp, an Akwesasne Mohawk and business manager for Utica-based Iron Workers Local 440. “The guys watching them said, ‘These boys get around steel pretty good’ and shortly after that, the Mohawks went to work on the bridge.”
Working in construction is a family tradition for the Swamp family. Swamp’s father, Abe, was an ironworker for 40 years; his grandfather was a union labourer in the 1920s and 1930s; and his son, Owen, an iron worker for the last 10 years, is a fully trained journeymen.
The first documented evidence of the Mohawk affinity for heights can be found in the Sonic Memorial Project, which includes written findings of employees of the Dominion Bridge Company: “We would employ these Indians as ordinary day laborers. They were dissatisfied with this arrangement and would come out on the bridge itself every chance they got. It became apparent to all concerned that these Indians were very odd in that they did not have any fear of heights ... We picked out some and gave them a little training, and it turned out that putting riveting tools in their hands was like putting ham with eggs.”
Since then, Mohawks have worked on the most famous buildings in the world — the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, World Trade Center, the George Washington Bridge and Chicago’s Sears Tower.
Following the collapse of the WTC towers in 2001, Mohawks further cemented their historic relationship with New York City’s skyline by participating in the cleanup of the site. New Yorkers honoured the Mohawks and expressed their appreciation.
There are about 950 unionized Mohawk ironworkers — 500 from Akwesasne (a reserve that straddles the U.S., Quebec and Ontario), 300 to 400 from Kahnawake (South Shore Montreal) and 30 to 40 from Kanesatake (Oka). The majority are associated with ironworker locals.
As a member of one of the Mohawk families of ironworkers to scale the heights over New York City, Swamp, an ironworker himself for 25 years, recalls the stories his father and grandfather shared.
“There wasn’t much training in the old days,” said Swamp. “You pretty much learned on the job.”
Gaining a solid reputation, Kahnawake supplied 70 iron workers by 1907. But that year also marked tragedy for Mohawk ironworkers when 33 of them, hired to work on the Quebec Bridge (a cantilevered bridge spanning the St. Lawrence), lost their lives. The bridge’s structure began to buckle and rivets started to pop, and the bridge collapsed, leading to the deaths of the Mohawks.
This incident prompted the women of the Kahnawake Reserve to declare that in future, Mohawk men would never be hired in large numbers to work on one particular project.
It was also the first step to ensure that Mohawk ironworkers would be better protected on the job.
“A lot of families lost fathers and brothers. But it was the start of efforts to unionize the Mohawks,” said Swamp. “They probably joined up with Montreal locals and once they learned how to do the work, they travelled to New York City and other large cities. Many moved to New York, which is now their home town. But they still remain Mohawks and proud of their ancestry, heritage and traditions.”
The effects of that tragedy linger today.
“Everybody has a sense of fear of heights at some point,” said Swamp, who notes not all Mohawks are gifted ironworkers. “When getting onto a piece of iron, something goes on in your mind — ‘what if this happens, etc.’ It’s happened to me a few times. You get a sense of fear, but usually when you are up on the iron, you want to get from point A to point B as quick as you can and just get the structure up.
“It’s a sense of pride when a building is completed. It’s not in everybody’s blood to be an ironworker. It’s strenuous and dangerous work. You have to be alert and have all your senses working, especially when there is nothing below you but the hard ground or a deck. You have to be on your toes at all times.”
These days, the Mohawks don’t send a lot of immediate family members to one particular job because of the 1907 tragedy.
“It’s a rule of thumb now in case something does happen.”
Swamp recalls his thoughts the first time he went up on the high steel:
“I said to myself ‘what the heck am I doing up here?’ But after a few minutes, I got the hang of it. I had a good partner, and I stuck it out for 25 years.”
His son Owen, 29, who lives in Akwesasne, appreciates the apprentice program he participated in.
“It provided me the full scope of what it is to be a journeymen ironworker,” he said. “I’ve been involved with just about all aspects of the trade. I enjoy being an ironworker.
“It’s not an easy job and it can be dangerous at times, but we’re all aware of the risks and we’re looking out for each other. In this job, there’s always room to learn.
“My dad encouraged me to join the apprentice program after I graduated from high school and I didn’t hesitate one bit. He has always been there for me and doesn’t hesitate to offer advice.”
In tomorrow’s edition of Daily Commercial News, we’ll examine the apprenticeship program offered by Ironworkers Local 440.
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