Sky Walking: Raising Steel, A Mohawk Ironworker Keeps Tradition Alive

Monday, March 19, 2012

Kaniehtakeron ‘Geggs’ Martin working at 55th Street. He's a fourth generation ironworker from Kahnawake. Kaniehtakeron ‘Geggs’ Martin working at 55th Street. He's a fourth generation ironworker from Kahnawake. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

Balancing 27 stories above midtown Manhattan on a recent afternoon, ironworker Kaniehtakeron ‘Geggs’ Martin straddled an I-beam on top of a rising skyscraper on 55th Street and grabbed a steel beam out of the air with a steady gloved hands.

Gently swaying the steel knocked into a support column with a deadening gong that provided the bass note to the work site’s dissonant clanging and sizzling welding.

Martin, 35, is a fourth generation Mohawk ironworker, and comes from Kahnawake, an Indian reserve outside of Montreal that has been supplying the city with ironworkers for the past century. Mohawks have worked on nearly ever skyscraper and bridge in New York City for over a century. 

“It’s my job to climb the steel and erect the iron,” said Martin, who works as a connecter on the raising gang. “I put the building up, basically.”

Today, there are about 200 Mohawk ironworkers working in the New York area, out of 2,000 structural ironworkers, according to the union. Most still travel home to Canada on weekends.

“A lot of people watch us and ask me if I’m crazy, but it’s fun,” Martin said. ”You got to love what you do. They always often ask me if I’m afraid of heights… a lot of people are. I’m one of them who isn’t.”

A myth has long persisted that Mohawk ironworkers possess some innate skills that allow them to work at high altitudes, fearlessly.

In 1949, New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell described Mohawks as “the most footloose Indians,” and, quotes an official of the Dominion Bridge Company, the first company to hire Mohawks to do ironwork in the 1880s as saying “that putting riveting tools in their hands was like putting ham with eggs.”

At its peak in the late 1950s, there were 800 Mohawk ironworkers living in North Gowanus in a neighborhood nicknamed Little Kahnawake. They made up about 15 percent of ironworkers then. Today, they make up about 10 percent.

“Virtually every skyscraper … has been built by Mohawk and other Iroquois ironworkers including the new Time Warner building…Rockefeller Center, Empire State building, Chrysler, all these skyscrapers, virtually all the bridges,” said Robert Venables, a historian and former Director of Cornell University’s American Indian studies program.



Drive north on I-87 for about six-and-a-half hours, and 45 minutes across the Canadian border you find Kahnawkae.

Kahnawkae means “close to the rapids” or “by the rapids,” and was historically a strategic location for Mohawks so they could regulate who came down the St. Lawrence River.

The 12,000-acre reserve has a population of about 7,000. There are leafy streets and ranch houses with American trucks in the driveways. There are no numbered houses or street signs. The stop signs are in English and Mohawk.

There are six golf courses, and soon to be one more. Canadian flags are rare; there are more American flags flapping alongside New York Giant and Boston Bruins flags.

Mike Delisle, Gegg’s brother-in-law, is the grand chief of the Mohawk Council in Kahnawake. He too comes from a family of ironworkers but has stayed on the reserve.

Delisle said the current land is only two-thirds of what they once held; the reserve was originally set up as a Jesuit mission in the 1660s.

Mohawks were once heavily involved in Quebec’s fur trade, traveling as far as Mississippi and the Rockies, according to Venables, the historian.

In the late 1800s, they shifted to the lumber trade and would float timber down the river, another physically demanding job that sent them far from home.

There are other Mohawk reserves, like Akwesasne, which straddles the Canadian border near Ontario, but Kahnawkae is where the Mohawks, reportedly, got their first taste of ironwork.

The story most cited is that in the 1880s The Dominion Bridge Company wanted to build a bridge stretching from the banks in Montreal through Kahnawkae.

Part of the contract for obtaining land rights stipulated that the company must hire Mohawks, according to Jim Rasenberger, who wrote about this in his book on ironworkers, “High Steel.”

Bridge workers noticed that after hours, Mohawks would climb on the spans for fun, and the company decided to see if these climbers could be trained to do ironwork. From there, they went on to other high steel jobs.

From Delisle’s front yard, the top of that first bridge is visible, and he said daredevils have been seen riding motorcycles over the top.

Families Divided

As a child Cheryl Zachary knew when her father’s rusty orange bag came out it meant she wouldn’t see him for another five days.

She’d cry, but was always rewarded on Friday when he came back with the latest cassette tapes from New York or a new pair of sneakers. She collected Converse in all colors of the rainbow.

Her grandfather and father were ironworkers, so when her husband, Geggs Martin, wanted to apply for an apprenticeship, it seemed only natural.

During the week, Martin shares an apartment with a fellow Mohawks in a four-story walk up in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. His uncle and nine other Kahnawake Mohawks rent rooms there. On a recent afternoon, there was a pair of muddy work boots in the hallway and a red and yellow Mohawk flag sticker under the buzzer.

“If I need something I’ll run down to my uncle’s,” Martin said sitting at his neat kitchen table.  “Or he’ll come up here see what I’m up to or I’ll go talk hockey with the guys across the hall that’s nice.”

On Friday, everyone secures a ride back to Kahnawake — Martin drives his new Dodge Charger. Sometimes he’ll stop and pick up something from the Cheesecake Factory or at Carlo’s Bakery in New Jersey.

Martin and his wife Cheryl have two kids: a 16-year-old daughter, and 10-year old boy, devoted to hockey, like his father.

“The kids are good with it too, when they were younger they’d cry and they don’t know the time when he’s coming back, but now they adjust,” Zachary said.

Both say communication is important. Martin and Zachary talk several times a day, and text message each other often.

Zachary, who works as an administrative assistant on the reserve, is proud of her husband, but she’s also tough. When Martin started drinking heavily, as many Mohawks have done before, she put her foot down.

"I’m not going to wake up and my husband’s a big alcoholic in New York and I’m sitting over here,” she said. “I’m not living that life.”

And so Martin straightened out. He bought a juicer and began exercising hard. He started getting up early for work so he could be at the site by 6 a.m. -- early enough to read the paper with a cup of tea and have a banana.

“It’s all up to the person, to be smart enough to say ‘Hey, I could get killed doing this do I want to be hung-over in the morning or be sharp minded?’ ” he said.

Living Tradition

At Kahnawake, kids zoom around on ATVs, spend hours on Facebook and playing PlayStation. There are young guys still applying for apprenticeships to be an ironworker. Martin says he wouldn’t mind if his son wanted to be an ironworker, but Zachary hopes he doesn’t.

But the grand chief, Mike Delisle, said too many young people just want fast money and the numbers of ironworkers has shrunk over the last 20 years.

At Local 40 and 361, Bryan Brady is the director of training and said every year he gets about 100 new apprentices. Between five and 10 of them are Mohawks. Once a new recruit completes 612 hours of classroom time and between 4,000 and 7,000 hours in the field, they can become journeymen.

Most hope to be connecters, like Martin, which Brady say is the top of the food chain on a work site. 

“I’d hope that more of our young men and women would go back to it because I think we’ve lost some of that lost work ethic with tobacco being more prevalent in the community, easy money if you’ll call it,” Delisle said. “I think we’ve lost some of that Mohawk work ethic.”

It is hard work—Martin blew out his right knee one and half years ago, and he’s been favoring the left, which is getting sore now. In a few years, Geggs hopes to transition to something less physically grueling, like a foreman position. The shop steward on his site says he’d make an ideal candidate.

In Kahnawake—they say ironwork built the town—and most expect it will continue to do so for years to come.



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Comments [22]

BP from Indiana

As a retired Ironworker I heard stories on the job about how the Mohawks thought being high in the sky made them feel closer to their maker. Also on the weekends the men would return home usually arriving in the middle of the night. They would bring gifts and their families would be waiting for a celebration. They would be thankful for arriving back home safely and being able to provide for their children and wives.
Yes, Ironworkers are a very proud group of people all throughout the land.
BP- Retired Member of Local 439

May. 05 2015 10:50 AM
Donnie Martin from Norfolk Va

I am proud member of Local 79. I was a connector also. And proud of it. And my brother was one of the best. I learned from him. I was taught by also some very smart Native Americans. This article was great and if no matter what you are. When you up there you are as one. You look out for each other. You do not brag about what you do. All I can say is I loved it and was in better shape than any time in my life. This is in honor of my brothers in IW. Billy Martin, Stanley White, Billy Goat. Dan Muse. I just wished all local IW had of joined together with Health Welfare and Pension.

Dec. 29 2014 06:06 PM

I love the job, worked wit so many great people so far white , black , everything , including many mohawks- Dale Herne, Jim Morris, Lester, Sal, Kyle and Old man.. Great guys to work for... There is no better job than Iron work.

Mar. 30 2014 07:16 PM
David belcher from randleman nc

I love iron work I have been doing it for 5 yes now and I'm loven every dayof it I do respect the steel cause anything can happen hallways think safety first

Jan. 25 2014 10:38 PM
Nic Albright from windowrock AZ

I live on da Navajo rez n AZ EVERY job big an small is away frm hm so I knw hw hard it is to jam a weeks worth of parenting into a short week end espically wen ur connectin or bustin rods.All u can do is drink a BIG COLD COKE an gt sm sleep. da drive hm aint bad ur still amped frm erk its leavin tht takes da toll!!!!!

Mar. 26 2013 02:14 PM
ymaeiram from Albuquerque, New Mexico

I am an Ironworkers daughter. My dad is a Tewa Pueblo who is retired from Local 1 in Chicago (long way from home). I grew up hearing stories about you guys!!! You guys are awesome!!!

Sep. 02 2012 09:33 PM
Paul Murphy from Whatcom County, Washington, USA

Excellent article! My father Johnny and grandfather Toompa, like many others from Kahnawake, were both Mohawk iron workers for much of their lives. I've read and searched for as many articles I can find on the topic. They are hard to find and I must say this is one of the best, if not THE best. Very nicely done and I thank you, Sir.
Paul Murphy (Paul Atonwa Phillips)

Apr. 12 2012 12:49 PM
Miller from Six Nations of the Grand River

My brother was an Ironworker, GF or Superintendent on many sites... Skydome, Toronto, Mohegan Sun, CT, to name only a couple. In CT he worked with guys from Akwesasne, Kahnawake, Tonawanda, Onondaga,and many more. I was so proud of them all. Connectors scared me the most... they had to work in the most uncomfortable situations.
There were women Ironworkers, too. I'm proud of all of you.

Mar. 22 2012 04:57 PM

ivan- it's not silly. we talk about irish and italians all the time. i don't understand, petty people such as you,who think that praising a given group, takes away from the glory of another group . it says something about your lack of human integrity. you're very selfish. then again, why not just call it, what it is, racism. whether you mean it, or are even concious of it,is no excuse. you're racist

Mar. 21 2012 03:02 PM
David Velarde Jr from Albuquerque

Awesome article.

Mar. 21 2012 10:14 AM
Donna Jay

My dad, Vern Gladue was a Union Iron Worker out of North Dakota. He fell 20 feet and no longer works due to the injuries. He loved the work and traveled to many states in the Midwest. He is retired now and lives for his grandkids! Nice story.

Mar. 21 2012 10:13 AM

If 10% of the union is made up of Indians, then the other 90% are made up of mostly Irish and Italians. The Indians don't possess any more skills when it comes to walking the iron than anybody else. To singe them out, as though there were something "special" about them is completely silly.

Mar. 20 2012 05:30 PM
Mavis from Brooklyn

Wow, it brought back some memories! Growing up in Brooklyn, my father, two grandfathers, and all my uncles were ironworkers. Going to downtown Brooklyn to see them build the Brooklyn jail and to be able to identify my father and uncles as they worked! It made us proud. Thank you so much for the great story!

Mar. 20 2012 02:52 PM
Lee Gelber from Astoria, NY

Mr. Nessen,

What a superb piece of journalism! I haven't been so fascinated with the story of the Mohawk High Ironworkers since Joseph Mitchell wrote about these remarkable men and with your presentation today - their spouses as well.

Thank you,

Mar. 19 2012 10:30 PM

Great story, yes some of these guys are right in that it's not only Native Americans who build, but for Native Americans to ever get any sort of recognition of years of being labeled, it's actually nice to see a good story in the media for a change. My brothers are ironworkers and they are connectors, one of the most dangerous jobs out there on the high steel, and we're very proud of them, and they've been featured on t.v. specials on more than one occasion.

So to write such a good story why mare it with one comment that I hate to see in articles about Native Americans. As usually there's always something negative brought out about native americans, "drinking heavily like most do". That had to make his article, so the stigma attached to us by the white man had to be included. Think twice on how you write about a particular race. Please. A proud Native American woman.

Mar. 19 2012 09:23 PM
walter david, Moccasin-Jo Coffee Roasters from Quebec

I have been a union Ironworker and Mohawk, I have also worked NYC,South U.S Northern Quebec and Ontario for over 30 years.All Ironworkers are great what they do,no exception.There is a probable reason why articles are written about Mohawk Ironworkers,maybe it is because they have been labeled everything under the sun,from terrorists to smugglers to great Ironworkers,we need something positive for once.How about they are part of a Iroquois Confederacy that had the original U.S.Consititution and Bill of Rights,WOW.

Mar. 19 2012 06:33 PM
Daniel Freedman from Toronto

From a former Montrealer and New Yorker:

Great story-telling in a great piece that shows the possibilities of multi-media presentations.

More, please

Mar. 19 2012 02:42 PM

That was a great piece. I grew in Montreal, near Kahnawkae. People in Montreal don't seem to know about the Mohawks and their role in building NYC; I first heard of their ironworking prowess shortly after moving here.

Mar. 19 2012 01:46 PM

tim- lots of people don't know about the native american history. why do you have to pour cold water, over this great segment. so what,if a lot of other people build these structures also,that's not the focus of this piece.

Mar. 19 2012 12:22 PM
tim from nj

I'm an ironworker it is nice to write a story like this but its not just the Indians who climb high and built ny I've been up there plenty of times and my father helped build the 1st world trade center It's a brotherhood of of all different races that build all these buildings not just the Indians we all climb and climb high

Mar. 19 2012 11:48 AM
John Mitchell from Guthrie, Oklahoma

Mohawk Ironworker, I live in Oklahoma and my youngest son is an Ironworker also, we work out of local 48 OKC

Mar. 19 2012 11:34 AM
Tara from NYC

Thank you for featuring this. We do not see enough stories in the media about the contemporary experience of Native people.

Mar. 19 2012 10:23 AM

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