Cover image for High steel : the daring men who built the world's greatest skyline
High steel : the daring men who built the world's greatest skyline
Rasenberger, Jim.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : HarperCollins, [2004]

Physical Description:
376 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
TH139 .R37 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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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.

Author Notes

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

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

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) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Rasenberger's exciting book celebrates the work and the lives of the ironworkers who have built the skyscrapers and bridges of New York City since the late 19th century; a few outstanding projects elsewhere receive brief attention. The narrative is presented in an anecdotal fashion that makes for good reading. Emphasis is placed on two ethnic groups of Canadians who have played major roles in the ironworking trade and its militant trade union. Those groups are the Mohawk Indians, from a reservation just above the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, and Newfoundlanders of Irish Catholic origin. Although the book is nontechnical, it offers readers insight into some technical matters such as (terrorist threats aside) how high tall buildings should be built. The book ends with some coverage of the 9/11 attacks and some projects that continued afterwards. The book is engrossing and suitable for high school students as well as more mature general readers. It might have been enhanced by an appendix covering technical matters for readers with such interests. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. General readers. M. Levinson formerly, University of Washington

Booklist Review

Journeying through the past century of New York City's ironworking trade, Rasenberger recounts signal events in its labor history while developing a powerful impression of its unique occupational culture. The latter he absorbed from close ground- and sky-level observation of ironworkers at two mid-Manhattan construction sites, and at the World Trade Center site. Raising steel for bridges and skyscrapers is extraordinarily hazardous. Several of the workers profiled sustained severe and, in one instance, permanently disabling injuries--painfully proving ironwork's annual 5 percent death-and-injury rate. Why any man would court its dangers is a tantalizing question to which Rasenberger advances a multitude of answers. One is generational continuity, which Rasenberger discerned from his trips to the homes of Mohawk Indians and Newfoundlanders who've worked in the trade for decades. Another is the autonomy on the job that ironworkers enjoy, and the pride they derive from being the first colonists of a square of air. With ironworkers' social prestige elevated in the aftermath of the WTC calamity, Rasenberger's muscular portrait deserves an outsize audience as well. --Gilbert Taylor Copyright 2004 Booklist

Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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. Excerpted from High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World's Greatest Skyline by Jim Rasenberger All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Of Steel and Menp. 1
Part I The Hole
1 Some Luckp. 9
2 The Man On Top (1901)p. 31
3 The New World (2001)p. 61
4 The Walking Delegate (1903)p. 81
5 Mondays (2001)p. 109
Part II The Bridge
6 Kahnawakep. 133
7 Cowboys of the Skiesp. 173
8 Fishp. 209
Part III The Fall
9 The Old Schoolp. 239
10 The Towersp. 259
11 Burning Steelp. 287
12 Topping Outp. 319
Sourcesp. 341
Acknowledgmentsp. 355
Indexp. 359