People love urban myths and recounting them, filled as they often are with drama, mystery, romance and unusualness. The more atypical they are, the better, and if there is an element of truth to them, they are more easily believed. Few will bother to sort out the "nuances", separating fact and fiction - such "nuances" may undermine the entire story.
We also have a love of individuals with supernatural or perhaps superhuman abilities, allowing us to triumph over the day to day battles we must all endure. Some urban legends explain things inexplicable to us, such as how anyone could work at dizzying heights as an ironworker on skyscrapers.
The Mohawk Indian, innately endowed with uncanny capabilities, became the explanation as well as an exotic and enticing concept - the American Indian transported and juxtaposed in the most urban environment imaginable: the steelworks of a Manhattan skyscraper.
Articles like “The Mohawks in High Steel” by Joseph Mitchell in The New Yorker (September 17, 1949) did much to foster the mythical attributes of the Mohawk ironworker, using statements such as "It became apparent to all concerned that these Indians were very odd in that they did not have any fear of heights," and "They seemed immune to the noise of the riveting."
However, Kyle Karonhiaktatie Beauvais (Mohawk, Kahnawake) says: “A lot of people think Mohawks aren’t afraid of heights; that’s not true. We have as much fear as the next guy. The difference is that we deal with it better. We also have the experience of the old timers to follow and the responsibility to lead the younger guys. There’s pride in ‘walking iron.’”
However, Mohawks have been involved historically as ironworkers since 1886, when they were hired to build the Canadian Pacific Railway bridge over the St. Lawrence River between Canada and Kahnawake Mohawk land in New York State. They developed a reputation as top workers and began "booming out" from their native communities to projects in Canada and in New York City to build skyscrapers. In 1915, a large majority of men in the Kahnawake reservation belonged to the structural steel union.
Many moved to New York City, settling in the Boerum Hill and Bay Ridge neighborhoods of Brooklyn. In the 1940s-50s, as many as 700 Indians lived in Boerum Hill. Mohawk ironworkers have been involved in building the city's most notable landmarks such as the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Triborough Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the Henry Hudson Parkway, the RCA Building, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and in 1961, the World Trade Center. In September 2001, after the collapse of the twin towers, Mohawk ironworkers dismantled the wreckage. After a building bust, some have returned to the city.
Along with innate abilities, the percentage of American Indians in the trade has also been exaggerated. The classic photo from 1932 (see Lunchtime on a Skyscraper here) shows ironworkers who were predominantly Irish. My understanding is that American Indians have not dominated the ironworkers union.
The skyscrapers of New York's skyline are a celebration and tribute to ironworkers who, Mohawk or not, are New York City's real supermen, our men of steel...
Photo Note: This construction is located at 58 Washington Square South, where the former NYU Catholic Center was located. The site, on Washington Square South and Thompson Street, will be home to NYU's Center for Academic and Spiritual Life.