Mohawks celebrate dizzy heights of NY construction skills

Financial Times

4 September 2002

An exhibition near Ground Zero charts achievements of the native Americans who shaped the city’s skyline.

On the morning of September 11, ironworker Herby Kirby was at work on a construction site in downtown Manhattan.

From his perch high in the steel girders he had a clear view of the World Trade Center moments after the second jet struck.

By chance, Mr Kirby had a camera and captured a searing image of smoke pouring from the gash raked across the South Tower.

What makes this image of the twin towers in their final moments all the more significant is that Mr Kirby’s forebears, Mohawk native Americans, helped build them. His photograph, along with dozens of others, are featured in a New York exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian, “Booming Out: Mohawk Ironworkers Build New York”.

The museum is close to Ground Zero, which today lies eerily empty, with controversy surrounding the rebuilding.

While the future of lower Manhattan is being debated, the exhibition photographs commemorate the glory of the World Trade Center and the anguish of its demise through the unique lens of the Mohawk ironworkers who helped build them.

For over 100 years Mohawks from the Kahnawake and Akwesasne communities, near the New York-Canada border, have been helping to construct some of the most distinctive architectural landmarks in the US.

In New York City they have left their mark on the Empire State Building, the George Washington Bridge, the United Nations, and the World Trade Center.

In recent years they have helped raise skyscrapers that are home to companies such as Chase Manhattan and Goldman Sachs.

The history of Mohawk ironworkers is documented in the work of photojournalists as well as the ironworkers themselves.

They depict scenes from throughout the 20th century, from men manoeuvring beams at the Hell Gate Bridge in 1916, to fitting girders atop the AOL Time Warner building in Manhattan last year.

Included in the show is the famous 1920s photo by Lewis Hine of workers taking a break during the construction of Rockefeller Center.

Among the group of men nonchalantly eating lunch while dangling their feet over the void are a few Mohawk ironworkers.

One image of the WTC gives a dizzying view of the towers, looking from the ground up as the last beam was lifted to “top off” the South Tower.

“That’s part of history right there. The ironworkers signed it, put their signatures on it,” says John McGowan, a Kahnawake ironworker, in the accompanying caption.

The image is all the more striking when juxtaposed with one showing ironworkers cutting through the mangled wreckage of the towers after the September 11 terrorist attack.

Mohawks have been working iron since the 1880s when they helped build a bridge over the St Lawrence River from Montreal on to Kahnawake land.

Mohawk men were hired to work on the project; legend has it that a supervisor noticed they did not seem to be afraid of heights.

The Mohawks’ reputation as skilful ironworkers grew, and after their first projects, Mohawks had to “boom out”, or migrate, to the work.

The jobs provided by New York City’s burgeoning skyline resulted in a commuter lifestyle for many Mohawks.

Today many work and live in the city during the week, then make the long drive back north to their families on weekends.

For Kanatakta, co-curator of “Booming Out” and executive director of the Kahnawake community’s cultural institution, the twin towers had personal significance because his father helped build them.

He was a teenager when his father talked about the job and how it was a source of pride to be working on what were then the tallest buildings in the world.

“I remember him talking about the job and how it was built.”

After the attacks, crews of Mohawk ironworkers drove to Ground Zero to help in rescue and clean-up operations.

Their expertise with putting together the buildings meant they knew how best to dismantle them.

They found a wasteland of metal, inconceivably crumpled and hot enough to melt their boots.

“All the guys who went to Ground Zero couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The pile was only seven stories high. Nobody could figure out where it had all gone,” says Kanatakta. “It was like pick-up sticks – except those sticks were 50-tonne columns.”

Kyle Karonhiaktatie Beauvais, a Kahnawake ironworker, can lay claim to helping build the American Express and Bear Stearns buildings in Manhattan, among many others. His family legacy is also intertwined with the World Trade Center.

His grandfather, one of the Mohawks in the famed Lewis Hine photo, and three uncles worked on the twin towers.

Mr Beauvais himself worked for five months with the clean-up crew at Ground Zero.

On a steamy August day Mr Beauvais was hard at work on the skeleton of a SoHo apartment building. His response to the initial six redevelopment designs was lukewarm.

“They should put the memorial in the same spot where the towers stood. They should make the towers as high,” he said of the plans, which will be finalised in the first half of 2003.

But he quickly added: “A lot of guys want to be there for that building, whatever it looks like.

“It’s going to be a big project.”

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