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High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World's Greatest Skyline

High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World's Greatest Skyline

by Jim Rasenberger

With the birth of the steel-frame skyscraper in the late nineteenth century came a new breed of man, as bold and untamed as any this country had ever known. These "cowboys of the skies," as one journalist called them, were the structural ironworkers who walked steel beams — no wider, often, than the face of a hardcover book — hundreds of feet above ground


With the birth of the steel-frame skyscraper in the late nineteenth century came a new breed of man, as bold and untamed as any this country had ever known. These "cowboys of the skies," as one journalist called them, were the structural ironworkers who walked steel beams — no wider, often, than the face of a hardcover book — hundreds of feet above ground, to raise the soaring towers and vaulting bridges that so abruptly transformed America in the twentieth century.

Many early ironworkers were former sailors, new Americans of Irish and Scandinavian descent accustomed to climbing tall ships' masts and schooled in the arts of rigging. Others came from a small Mohawk Indian reservation on the banks of the St. Lawrence River or from a constellation of seaside towns in Newfoundland. What all had in common were fortitude, courage, and a short life expectancy. "We do not die," went an early ironworkers' motto. "We are killed."

High Steel is the stirring epic of these men and of the icons they built — and are building still. Shifting between past and present, Jim Rasenberger travels back to the earliest iron bridges and buildings of the nineteenth century; to the triumph of the Brooklyn Bridge and the 1907 tragedy of the Quebec Bridge, where seventy-five ironworkers, including thirty-three Mohawks, lost their lives in an instant; through New York's skyscraper boom of the late 1920s, when ironworkers were hailed as "industrial age heroes." All the while, Rasenberger documents the lives of several contempor-ary ironworkers raising steel on a twenty-first-century skyscraper, the Time Warner building in New York City.

This is a fast-paced, bare-knuckled portrait of vivid personalities, containing episodes of startling violence (as when ironworkers dynamited the Los Angeles Times building in 1910) and exhilarating adventure. In the end, High Steel is also a moving account of brotherhood and family. Many of those working in the trade today descend from multigenerational dynasties of ironworkers. As they walk steel, they follow in the footsteps of their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers.

We've all had the experience of looking at a par-ticularly awe-inspiring bridge or building and wondering, How did they do that? Jim Rasenberger asks — and answers — the question behind the question: What sort of person would willingly scale such heights, take such chances, face such danger? The result is a depiction of the American working class as it has seldom appeared in literature: strong, proud, autonomous, enduring, and utterly compelling.

Editorial Reviews

Chicago Sun-Times
Rasenberger writes about the 'wow of the beam,' the feeling an ironworker has while walking and sometimes running on a piece of steel ... the reader shares that 'wow' feeling throughout this riveting historical work as the author offers up descriptions of the enormous projects, the great heights and the precarious workspaces.
New York Newsday
Fascinating....A breezy, anecdotal history of...the daredevils of the skies...who built New York City's bridges and skyscrapers throughout the 20th century. No previous author has put together the big picture as Rasenberger has. He gives us a sense of who ironworkers are, what they actually do and why they love their jobs.
New York Post
Introduce[s] us to the romance and adventure of hard hats....men [who] make their living courting danger every day.
New York Sun
Captures the true spirit of the ironworker's heroism....Mr. Rasenberger's sharp eye...his sympathetic imagination, and his graceful prose make for an engaging read....Beautifully written.
In a dizzying look at a world hundreds of feet above New York's mean streets, Rasenberger recounts the heroic labor of the ironworkers who built legendary skyscrapers like the Empire State Building and the Twin Towers, foot by treacherous foot.(4 Stars)
Vanity Fair
In HIGH STEEL, Jim Rasenberger immortalizes the daring ironworkers who erect the world's most spectacular skylines.
Jonathan Yardley
The most terrifying picture in the whole history of photographs was taken one September day in 1932 by someone in the employ of Rockefeller Center, which was then under construction. It shows 11 hard-hat workers (except in those days they wore soft hats, or none at all) contentedly eating their lunch. Nothing terrifying about that, right? Except that they are sitting on a steel beam 800 feet above Sixth Avenue. The buildings of the city below them look like a tiny model-train display. Yet from the looks on their faces and their relaxed body language, they might as well be in a couple of booths at the Corner Deli.

Rasenberger, a New York journalist, pays overdue tribute to these men in High Steel. It's overdue not just because they've long deserved it but because, as Rasenberger makes plain, the steel-frame skyscraper is slowly giving way to reinforced concrete, a trend that was greatly accelerated with the fall of the World Trade Center: "Concrete would not have melted as the steel did; it is more heat resistant than steel." Beyond that, some of the romance of the ironworkers has faded as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has begun to impose stricter regulations about "how ironworkers were to rig steel, how they were to land it on the derrick floor, how they were to connect it in the air," as well as to require "that ironworkers use fall protection whenever they worked a considerable distance above the ground or the floor below."

As portrayed by Rasenberger they are tough guys, clannish, given to standard-issue hard-hat macho attitudes, heavy drinkers, loyal family men, incredibly skilled. What they do as a matter of routine is almost literally unimaginable for most of us.

Rasenberger gives them their full due... Because raising steel for skyscrapers is essentially an outgrowth of raising steel for bridges, he provides brief, succinct accounts of the building of the Verrazano, George Washington and other famous spans. He disposes tidily of the myth (originally propagated by Joseph Mitchell of the New Yorker) that Mohawks are "preternaturally sure-footed" and "innately endowed for life in high places and immune to fear of falling." He uses the construction of the vast new Time Warner Building on Columbus Circle as a backdrop against which to tell his tale — which, on the whole, he tells uncommonly well.
The Washington Post

Publishers Weekly
Inspired by a New York Times article Rasenberger wrote on ironworkers in early 2001, this historical overview of skyscraper construction in New York City and elsewhere traces the erection of such structures as the Flatiron and Chrysler buildings, the Empire State Building, the George Washington Bridge, the World Trade Center and the lavish new Time Warner Center. This last building is the narrative column around which Rasenberger builds his book, which is largely devoted to "the men who risked the most and labored the hardest"-the ironworkers who put the high-rise steel columns in place. Though his admiration at times seems compulsory rather than genuine, Rasenberger emphasizes the often heroic, death-defying feats ironworkers perform. He also takes account of far-flung communities that breed ironworkers, such as the Mohawk Indians of upstate New York. The chronological history is broken up by alternating sections on the Time Warner Center and often feels less like a single narrative than a collection of vignettes. Rasenberger's principal claim, that ironwork's days are numbered because of the growing reliance on concrete, is often lost in the telling. Even the Time Warner Center was built more with concrete than iron, which is costlier and more vulnerable to heat in events such as the World Trade Center attacks. This recounting, while less than fully absorbing, serves as a valuable history for building enthusiasts and a thoughtful testament to a dying craft that has helped fuel the American economy for more than a century. 21 b&w photos. Agent, Kris Dahl, ICM. (Apr. 1) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Structural ironworkers (hard hats is the faintly condescending term most outside the building trades use) are the men-and they all are men, overwhelmingly white ethnic or Native Canadian/American-who erected the skyscrapers and bridges that are the iconic markets of the industrial epoch. Rasenberger, a frequent contributor to the New York Times, connects anecdotes of the working and social lives of contemporary ironworkers with riffs on construction economics, engineering, and union and business history. The personal stories and plain explanations of construction culture and techniques are this book's greatest draw; the history has a taint of journalistic obligation about it. While Rasenberger has clearly acquired the trust of his subjects and never patronizes them, he does conclude that the last building boom crumbled with the World Trade Center. This debut book's singular achievement is to inspire his readers to hope that he is wrong. Recommended for most public libraries and essential for serious engineering, urbanism, and Native American collections.-Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A comprehensive celebration of men who for more than a century have willingly accepted the risks it took to put the American skyscraper on the map. Although freelance journalist Rasenberger points out that relatively short falls of 30 feet or less account for most ironworker fatalities, the vision of a sudden misstep and the long plunge to certain death haunts nearly every page, skulking between the lines to pounce on unwary readers and most potent of all in those old photos (some 21 are included here) of men munching a sandwich or reading the news while perched with legs oddly dangling on a steel beam separated from the sidewalk below by hundreds of feet of thin air. More chilling still are the statistics Rasenberger reports showing that neither timid novices nor cautious veterans are as likely to fall as an ironworker reaching the peak of his career: it's complacency that kills the cat. The author nicely highlights projects that pushed the limits as his focus shifts eastward from Chicago in the 1870s; an account of the much-covered 1907 Quebec Bridge disaster hums with new suspense as he depicts men showing up for work despite visible deformations that indicated the structure was fatally flawed. Even better are Rasenberger's intimate glimpses into the lives, ethnicities, and psychology (fierce independence declared with verbose bravado spiced by political incorrectness) of clannish roughnecks drawn to what is still one of the most dangerous of all professions. His sympathetic exploration of the celebrated Mohawk Indian workers, for instance, explicitly avoids mythmaking. Mohawks aren't genetically superior any more than they are fearless, Rasenberger states; they simply take pride inworking on tall buildings and are especially good at the essential skills required-skills now less in demand as cheaper reinforced concrete moves the steel I-beam off the job. First-rate look at the majesty and danger of building modern cities. Agent: Kris Dahl/ICM

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

High Steel
The Daring Men Who Built the World's Greatest Skyline

Chapter One

Some Luck

Brett Conklin was one of the lucky ones.

Of the 1,000 or so structural ironworkers who worked in New York City in the winter of 2001, most, like Brett, lived somewhere else. They lived at the far reaches of the city's suburbs, in Connecticut or New Jersey towns where a man making a good middle-class income could afford a patch of decent real estate. Or they lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, by the anchorage of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, where several hundred Mohawk Indians boarded during the week, four or five to a house. A few Newfoundlanders still held claim to the old neighborhood around 9th Street in Brooklyn, while another clan -- the Newfies of Lindenhurst -- maintained a well-kempt enclave on Long Island. One man lived on a farm in the Berkshires that winter, waking in the middle of the night to begin his star-lit drive to the city. Two men drove all the way from Wilmington, Delaware, to Times Square every morning, then back again every afternoon.

Wherever an ironworker lived, chances were he came into Manhattan by one of its tunnels or bridges. The difference was enormous. A tunnel was dank, gloomy, infested. Entering New York by tunnel was like sneaking into a palace through the cellar door: it lacked dignity. The proper way for an ironworker to enter the city was by bridge, swooshing over water, steel vibrating beneath him and gathering in the sky before him. The ironworker entering the city by bridge enjoyed a peculiar kind of pride. His work -- or the work of his father or grandfather, of the generations of ironworkers that preceded him -- lay before him and under him and vaulted over him. Every bridge and building represented a catalogue of friendships, marriages, births, falls, cripplings, and, in some cases, deaths. The relationship between an ironworker and the city's steel structures was intensely personal.

On the morning of February 20, 2001, as on most mornings, Brett Conklin had the good fortune to enter the city over one of the most spectacular bridges of them all, the George Washington, a 4,760-foot suspended span crossing the Hudson River between Fort Lee, New Jersey, and northern Manhattan. Shortly before dawn, his commuter bus, which he'd boarded 40 miles to the west, slowed for the toll, then shifted up and started across the bridge, and Brettcould look up to see the two lacy steel towers, each taller than a 50-story skyscraper, and the four suspension cables draped between them, each weighing about 7,000 tons and still bejeweled, in the wintry gloom, with luminous green electric bulbs. Downriver a violet fog hovered over the tops of the buildings. Dawn was breaking. The newspaper forecast mild temperatures, rising to a high in the low 50s, mostly cloudy with a chance of dim sunshine. There was no mention of rain in the forecast.

Half an hour after crossing the bridge, Brett emerged from the Port Authority Bus Terminal and strode across Eighth Avenue. He was a striking man, six feet four inches tall, large-boned and well built, but with a soft, boyish face. Brett had recently moved in with his girlfriend but he spent a good deal of time at his parents' house, eating his mother's cooking, watching sports on television with his father and younger brother. He was, at 28, still very close to his family and proud of it. When his mother expressed reservations about his decision to go into ironwork six years earlier, he'd listened carefully, weighed her words, then made his own decision. Respectful but headstrong -- that was Brett.

With his long stride, Brett covered the distance to the building on Times Square in a matter of minutes. He slipped into it through a side entrance on 41st Street. The building had reached 32 floors, just six floors shy of topping out. Upon completion, it would become the headquarters of Ernst & Young, the accounting firm, and take its place among five other skyscrapers to leap up in Times Square during the last two years, and among dozens to appear in Manhattan over the last five or six years. Like every other tall office building in New York, it would be supported almost entirely by structural steel.

Brett was lucky to be an ironworker in New York during one of the greatest construction booms in the city's history. The boom had been going strong since the mid-90s. Over the last few months, the stock market had shown signs of contraction, but nobody was too worried about that, not yet. Enough new office space had been conceived in the bull market to keep ironworkers in pay for years. Local 40's shape hall on West 15th Street, where union ironworkers went when they needed work, was as quiet as a tomb. If a man showed up, he was sent right back out that same morning. Virtually anyone with a book -- that is, membership in the local -- who was healthy and wanted the work could have it. Even members of out-of-town locals who drove into town to partake of the bounty -- "boomers," they were called -- went out the same day on a permit.

A fine bounty it was, too. $33.45 an hour, plus a generous benefits package, made New York's wage the highest an ironworker could earn in North America. In good times, a capable hand could work virtually nonstop, turning that $35 an hour into $1,400 a week, and turning that $1,400 a week into $65,000 or $70,000 a year. At 28, with a girlfriend but still no family to support and no college loans to amortize, this was a considerable sum of money. Indeed, Brett was doing better than most of his old high school friends who had college diplomas and white-collar jobs ...

High Steel
The Daring Men Who Built the World's Greatest Skyline
. Copyright © by Jim Rasenberger. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Jim Rasenberger is a frequent contributor to the New York Times. He lives in New York City with his wife and twin sons. High Steel is his first book.

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