By Roz Hamlett, Portfolio Editor
Photos and Audio by Stephen Nessen, WNYC Public Radio
During a recent meeting on the 23rd floor of 4 World Trade Center, a Port Authority colleague of mine was discussing the results of a research project when she abruptly stopped mid-sentence and stared out the window.
A couple workers appeared to be fixing a crane on 3 WTC, the tower under construction next door. They were not inside lift buckets, but stood balanced mid-air on the operating arm of the crane. They appeared to be untethered. We all just gawked, speechless at the sight. Were they just plain crazy?
Another colleague said the men could be Caughnawaga (Kahnawake), a band of Christian Mohawks, who for years have worked on every major Port Authority bridge project, including the George Washington Bridge, the Bayonne Bridge and various other bridges and skyscrapers in the region, including the Empire State Building as well as World Trade Center construction projects.
Portfolio was intrigued. Wow. . . it’s hard enough for anyone living in the New York region to go about his or her day without crossing a bridge, riding an elevator or traveling by air. How can anyone with acrophobia commonly known as a “fear of heights” even function? A Mohawk ironworker to an acrophobiac would be like SuperMan, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
This ability is not innate in Mohawk Indians. Working hundreds of feet in the air, they must be careful too, like anyone else. But the pay is good, and some Mohawks got involved in the trade during the late 1800s and promoted it in the community or got their friends hired onto the crews. That’s when the urban myth began that American Indians have no fear of heights because a large percentage of bridge and skyscraper crews were Mohawk.
The story of the Caughnawaga began in Canada when the Dominion Bridge Company began to build a cantilevered bridge over the St. Lawrence River for the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1886. Because part of the bridge lay in the Mohawk reservation, they demanded jobs on the project. The company planned to use them as unskilled labor until officials discovered that members of the tribe would climb all over the bridge “for fun” at night.
According to one witness, “they would walk a narrow beam high up the air with nothing below them but the river. It wouldn’t mean anymore to them than walking on solid ground. They seemed immune to the noise of the riveting, which goes right through you and is often enough to make newcomers to construction feel sick and dizzy.”
Some Mohawk men displayed such remarkable aptitude for height that by the end of the project there were 70 iron and steel riveters from the Caughnawa band.Their story continued to New York with a man named John Diabo, who came to the city to work on the Hell Gate Bridge in 1915. Others of his tribe followed, eventually forming a settlement during the 1920s of about 400 men, women and children in the North Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn.
A 1949 New Yorker article described Mohawks as “the most footloose Indians in North America,” and quotes an official of Dominion Bridge as saying “putting riveting tools in their hands was like putting ham with eggs.” By 1950, 80 Caughnawa were members of the Brooklyn local of the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Iron Workers union and others belonged to the Manhattan local.
For more than 50 years, the Mohawks of Quebec, Canada have occupied a 10 square block area in the North Gowanus section of Brooklyn, which became known as Little Caughnawaga. The men brought their wives, children and often, extended family with them. At its peak in the late 1950s, there were 800 Mohawk ironworkers living in North Gowanus. They made up about 15 percent of ironworkers then. Today they make up about 10 percent.