Stephen Nessen, Reporter, WNYC News
Stephen Nessen reports for the WNYC Newsroom and can often be heard live on Morning Edition.
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.
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.
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.