The Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers

It’s funny where you find something you didn’t know before. Just like many others during the pandemic, I’ve spent more time rewatching old TV programmes. Recently I watched some episodes of Auf Weidersehen Pet, an old British comedy about a group of labourers from the North East of England who look for building work abroad. Some of the last episodes of the programme, which are about 20 years old, have the characters helping a Native American tribe to build a bridge, which they brought from England, on land on their reservation. I had no idea before watching these episodes, despite being fascinated by Native American history (which if you’re a regular reader, you’ll have guessed by now), that Native Americans were fundamental in constructing high-rise buildings. So I decided to do some research into this and the story behind it is amazing.

The Mohawks, who are part of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, are known in their mother tongue as Mohowawogs. This was anglicized to Mohawks by Europeans.[1] They traditionally lived along the Hudson River, which straddles the American/Canadian border. Prior to European settlers coming to the area, their lands made up much of what is now known as New England, but as with all Native Americans, they have been forced onto reservations. The Mohawks now mainly live on the Kahnawake Reservation in Quebec, which lays on the shore of the St Laurence River, just outside of Montreal. Their association with building steel bridges and skyscrapers began by accident.

The Wreckage of the Quebec Bridge Collapse of 1907 in Holgate, Henry; Derry, John, G. G.; Galbraith, John, Royal Commission Quebec Bridge Inquiry Report, Sessional Paper No 154. S.E. Dawson printer to the King Ottawa. Appendix 19, figure 20, Wikimedia Commons

In 1886, the Dominion Bridge Company began work on a bridge over the St Laurence River for the Canadian Pacific Railway.[2] As the bridge was to be built on Mohawk land, permission to build the bridge relied upon some of the Mohawk men being employed by the company. Initially they were used as day labourers to suppliers.[3] Many of those employed were young men who attempted to climb the structure on their lunch breaks, proving that they were more than adept to working at height. This meant the company promoted them to working on the bridge. They realised the advantages of continuing in this type of employment would include a stable job and good wages to support their families. However, this would also include long periods away from home.

On 29 August 1907, the Quebec Bridge collapsed, killing 96 men who were working on it, 35 of which were Mohawks. In fact, only 11 men were ever recovered alive following the collapse.[4] The disaster had been caused due to financial issues with Quebec Bridge Company who were in charge of the bridge’s construction. The company had purposefully chosen a cheaper design that required less steel than was necessary for a bridge of its size, meaning it couldn’t take the weight needed.[5] The bodies of the Mohawks who sadly lost their lives were returned to the Kahnawake Reservation. Their graves were marked with steel beams to show how they had died, a tradition which is still continued.[6]

New York skyscrapers from Jersey City (1908), Library of National Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Whilst the dangers of working at height wouldn’t have been lost on the Mohawks or any of the other men working on such projects, a decision was made to stop such large scale deaths from happening again. The Mohawk women proposed that any men wishing to become steelworkers should be split into smaller groups to work on different projects, rather than only focusing on one.[7] With this decision, the Mohawks were able to work on many different building projects around America. However, they mostly concentrated on the many skyscrapers that were being built in New York in the early 20th century. They are known to have worked in the city as early as 1901, but it was only from the 1920s that they began to work on the numerous high-rise buildings that the city became known for.[8]

Mohawks have helped construct some of the most iconic buildings in New York. Here is a list of just some of them: Empire State Building, Rockefeller Centre, World Trade Centre, Chrysler Building, United Nations Secretariat Building and Madison Square Gardens.[9] It’s amazing to realise just how much the building of skyscrapers at this time relied upon not just Native Americans, but also other emigrants. It is thought that more than a dozen ethnicities worked on skyscrapers during their construction.[10] Perhaps the Mohawks were so good at it as they were a people who “fostered cooperation and community effort”, which can be seen in the gangs they worked with on the construction sites.[11] We have all probably seen that most famous photograph of workers eating their lunch on a girder hanging in the sky. At least three of them men in that picture are Mohawk.[12]

Lunch atop a Skyscraper, published in the New York Herald-Tribune, Oct2 1932, Wikimedia Commons

As it’s coming up to the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, I feel it rather appropriate to talk about the Mohawks role on that fateful day. As previously mentioned, many had helped build the Twin Towers during their construction between 1968 and 1972. Around 500 men worked on the construction, 200 of which were Mohawks.[13] The last girder put in place in skyscrapers in New York are usually signed by the people working on it. In the case of the World Trade Centre, it was a Mohawk gang.[14] There were also other buildings in the complex added after this date. However, many rushed to the World Trade Centre as they were working on nearby building sites. They offered help to survivors and also helped in the clearing of wreckage and search for victims following the attack.[15] For this reason, I feel it rather fitting that many of them then went on to work on the Freedom Tower and memorial that are now on the site of the World Trade Centre.[16]

Many Mohawks still continue to work in steel construction. Following the demand for them in New York, many chose to move their families to New York as it was around a 12 hour journey from Kahnawake to the city. They mainly lived around 4th Avenue and many grocery stores selling traditional Native foods and church that spoke in their native tongue also tended to their needs.[17] However, since a freeway/motorway was built in the 1970s, many chose to move back to their homeland as the commute was made easier.[18]

I hope that as the anniversary for both the Quebec Bridge disaster and 9/11 are both coming up, that this post has helped show the reliance the steel construction industry has had (and continues to have) on the Mohawks. At the time of the Quebec Bridge disaster, none of the Mohawk fatalities were ever mentioned in the news.[19] I hope that this goes at least some wat to highlight the legacy they, and all those Mohawks who have worked on these important projects, have left us with.


[1] Weitzman, D., Skywalkers: Mohawk Ironworkers Build the City (New York: Roaring Brook Pres, 2010), p. 4.

[2] Bjornland, K., ‘Honouring Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers and Bridges’, The Daily Gazette, 16 April 2017, https://dailygazette.com/2017/04/16/honoring-native-americans-who-built-skyscrapers-bridges/;  Adams, C., ‘Why Do So Many Native Americans Work on Skyscrapers’, Straight Dope, https://www.straightdope.com/21341828/why-do-so-many-native-americans-work-on-skyscrapers

[3] Bjornland, K., ‘Honouring Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers and Bridges’, The Daily Gazette, 16 April 2017, https://dailygazette.com/2017/04/16/honoring-native-americans-who-built-skyscrapers-bridges/

[4] University of North Carolina, The Collapse of the Quebec Bridge, 1907, https://eng-resources.uncc.edu/failurecasestudies/bridge-failure-cases/the-collapse-of-the-quebec-bridge-1907/

[5] ‘The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html

[6] Adams, C., ‘Why Do So Many Native Americans Work on Skyscrapers’, Straight Dope, https://www.straightdope.com/21341828/why-do-so-many-native-americans-work-on-skyscrapers

[7] ‘The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html

[8] ‘The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html; Adams, C., ‘Why Do So Many Native Americans Work on Skyscrapers’, Straight Dope, https://www.straightdope.com/21341828/why-do-so-many-native-americans-work-on-skyscrapers

[9]The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html; Budd, J., ‘High and Mighty’, The Guardian, 19 June 2002, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2002/jun/19/artsfeatures1

[10] Korum, J. J., The American Skyscraper, 1850-1940 (Boston: Branden Books, 2008)

[11] Weitzman, D., Skywalkers: Mohawk Ironworkers Build the City (New York: Roaring Brook Pres, 2010), p. 4.

[12] Budd, J., ‘High and Mighty’, The Guardian, 19 June 2002, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2002/jun/19/artsfeatures1

[13] Bjornland, K., ‘Honouring Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers and Bridges’, The Daily Gazette, 16 April 2017, https://dailygazette.com/2017/04/16/honoring-native-americans-who-built-skyscrapers-bridges/

[14] The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html

[15] The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html; Bjornland, K., ‘Honouring Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers and Bridges’, The Daily Gazette, 16 April 2017, https://dailygazette.com/2017/04/16/honoring-native-americans-who-built-skyscrapers-bridges/

[16] Bjornland, K., ‘Honouring Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers and Bridges’, The Daily Gazette, 16 April 2017, https://dailygazette.com/2017/04/16/honoring-native-americans-who-built-skyscrapers-bridges/

[17] The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html

[18] The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html

[19] Bjornland, K., ‘Honouring Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers and Bridges’, The Daily Gazette, 16 April 2017, https://dailygazette.com/2017/04/16/honoring-native-americans-who-built-skyscrapers-bridges/

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