National Geographic : 1952 Jul
140 Indian Boys Climb in Their Grandfathers' Steel Erecting a railway bridge across the St. Lawrence at the Reservation, Canada, the Mohawks first proved their daring work in 1886. The original structure has since been scrapped, boys still play steelworker on two lofty spans which have tak selves as best they could by farming, trapping, and piloting canoeloads of fur over the St. Lawrence rapids. Then in 1886 came the event which was to change their tribal history. In that year, the Dominion Bridge Com pany, now Canada's biggest structural-steel firm, began work on a new railway bridge over the St. Lawrence. One end of the bridge was to be in Caughnawaga, the other across the rapids in Lachine. In return for permission to build on their land, the Mohawks were promised jobs on the project-as laborers, however, not as riveters. In those days, builders had to look hard to find men willing to crawl around high steel girders on a bridge over dangerous rapids. About the only good source was seamen used to working in the rigging of sailing ships. The Mohawks weren't even considered. It soon became obvious that they should have been. As fast as the bridge went up, so did the Mohawks. They swarmed out on its narrow beams as calmly as if they were walk- deep ing on the ground. Hard ened riveters, working on the dizziest heights of the span, would find Indians peering curiously over their shoulders to see what was going on. A company engineer, impressed by the Indians' daring, taught some of them how to rivet. They took to it naturally, and, by the time the bridge was finished, a dozen of them were full-fledged iron workers. When the con struction men moved on to another project, the Mo hawks went with them and took along as appren tices a retinue of brothers, cousins, and friends. Indians Have Little Fear of Heights Why did the Caughna waga Mohawks take so eagerly to this spine-chill ing high-iron work? The answer seems to lie in a puzzling characteristic found in many North American Indian tribes, and outstandingly in the Iroquois: they are almost Bob Brayton completely lacking in fear Footsteps of heights. Caughnawaga As early as 1714, John Caughnawaga at high-steel Lawson, an English sur but Mohawk veyor and traveler in en its place. America, noted: "They will walk over Brooks, and Creeks, on the smallest Poles, and that without any Fear or Concern. Nay, an Indian will walk on the Ridge of a Barn or House and look down the Gable-end, and spit upon the Ground, as unconcerned, as if he was walking on Terra firma." Scientists who have spent years studying Indians still have no sure explanation for this relative freedom from fear of heights. Whatever the reason, within two decades Mohawk ironworkers had joined construction gangs all over Canada. In three decades they were drifting into the United States, looking for more work and higher pay. In Manhattan, in the booming 1920's, sky scrapers were going up like beanstalks, and it didn't take the Caughnawaga Mohawks long to discover that here was a happy hunting ground indeed. The first few to arrive settled across the river in Brooklyn. Rents were cheaper there, and it was only a 5-cent subway ride to the island of steel towers.