The Mohawk Indians who put up the city skyline

The Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building, the George Washington Bridge—the most iconic structures of New York’s skyline were built in part by Mohawk ironworkers.

They arrived in the city from upstate and Canada in the late 1800s to take on some of the most dangerous jobs in construction, working hundreds of feet in the air putting up frames for skyscrapers and bridges. 

They kept coming as the city grew vertically, with about 800 settling off Flatbush Avenue in downtown Brooklyn and Bay Ridge, according to a 1957 New York Times article.

Mohawk ironworkers continued to work the skyline. They helped build (and cart away) the World Trade Center; more recently they moved steel at the Time Warner Center.

As for the myth that they they had no fear of heights, the Indians interviewed in the Times piece shot that down.

In the mid-1880s, they explained, their fathers and grandfathers were hired to build a steel bridge near a reservation upstate. They earned a rep as skilled workers, then came to New York to ply their trade during the 20th century building boom.

The above photo, from 1971, comes from a recent Smithsonian exhibit.

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7 Responses to “The Mohawk Indians who put up the city skyline”

  1. Thomas Jefferson Says:

    My dad would tell me stories of when he was a kid about the Mohawk iron workers.

    The poor, the segregrated and the invisible people of this country, built this nation.

  2. Bob Says:

    New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell wrote a great piece decades ago about them called “Mohawks in the High Steel.” It’s worth a read, as Mitchell was a fantastic writer.

  3. Stewie Says:

    Actually, they weren’t “invisible,” as they were obviously remembered far more than the thousands of faceless Irish and German and Norwegian ironworkers who did 90% of the work. Yet somehow, people got the idea in their heads — and it’s a racist notion of sorts — that Indians had some mystical ability to stand great heights. People nameless and named built this country, together, which makes it unique in human history. A great documentation of it is “Entering Gotham” about the Pennsylvania Railroad drilling the tunnels under the North River (Hudson), into Penn Station, across Manhattan, across the East River… Well, you get the idea. Amazing feat of engineering and work. It took the lives of the CEOs and sandhogs, alike.

  4. Famous Pictures in History - Stoner Forums - A Marijuana & 420 Friendly Community Says:

    […] Re: Famous Pictures in History I like the pic and have it also, but I recently found out there is a bit of controversy about the workers in the pic. When the GE building (or any skyscaper) in NY was built, the famous Mohawk Indians did all the Union high work. This is a staged publicity photo. Check the website below. The Mohawk Indians who put up the city skyline Ephemeral New York […]

  5. SB Says:

    You know, the Mohawk Indians are STILL working as Iron Workers in NYC. They travel back to the reservation in Canada on weekends, but lots of them live in Bay Ridge during the week. I’m not sure why it’s Bay Ridge, but I know a whole pocket of Mohawk Iron Workers who drink at the bars in NYC. Still lots of Irish Americans in those unions, too.

  6. Theresa Saint Says:

    I am trying to find Native American Indians in the late 1930’s who were called Sky Walkers who built the sky scrapers in LA.

    Could someone please get back to me via Email?

    Thanks , Theresa Saint

  7. What the Empire State Building Means to Us at WorkStride - WorkStride Says:

    […] from Ireland, Scandinavia and Eastern Europeans, as well as a large contingent of members of the Mohawk tribe from upstate New York and […]

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