See 47 photos of daredevil skyscraper construction workers hanging out at dizzying heights over New York City

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Decades ago, building the skyscrapers that defined the Manhattan skyline was a job for the brave. Workers on towers like the Empire State Building, Metropolitan Tower and Singer Building had far fewer safety regulations protecting them than today. Their daring feats high above the city streets earned them a legendary reputation.

Charles C. Ebbets - Skyscraper photographer in NYC (1930s) at ClickAmericana com
Charles C. Ebbets – Skyscraper photographer in NYC (1930s) – See one of his most famous photos below!

These hardworking men were more than simply skilled laborers — they were daredevils. They moved girders, riveted steel, painted walls and even took their lunch breaks while balancing on beams with minimal or no harnesses. Walking nonchalantly along beams suspended hundreds of feet in the air and swinging on cables, these workers performed tasks that would make most people dizzy.

1908-Painting the steel frame of the Metropolitan Tower - workmen 500 ft. above street, New York, U.S.A. at ClickAmericana com
Painting the steel frame of the Metropolitan Tower — workmen 500 ft. above street, New York, U.S.A 1908

Incredibly, despite the risky conditions, the death toll among these workers was surprisingly low. During the construction of the Empire State Building, there were only five reported deaths among the 3,400 men involved. Even more astonishing, the 3,000 workers who built the Chrysler Building completed their work without any fatalities. (Both skyscrapers were finished in the early 1930s.)

Our collection of photos and articles below showcases these adventurous construction workers in action. The images capture the raw courage and tenacity of these men as they built some of the most iconic structures in New York City. From balancing on narrow beams to swinging from cables, these photos offer a glimpse into a world where fear took a backseat to progress.

Old skyscraper construction with dangerous heights at ClickAmericana com

Take a moment to explore this collection and appreciate the incredible feats of these workers. Their bravery and dedication not only shaped the Manhattan skyline but also left a legacy of human spirit and determination. These images remind us of a time when building skyscrapers was as much about guts as it was about engineering.

Daredevil skyscraper construction workers

Where a step backward would mean eternity (1906)

Construction workers on skyscrapers in the early 1900s (8)

Two hundred feet in mid-air and no time to look at scenery

At work on new skyscraper, New York, U.S.A. 1906

Construction workers on skyscrapers in the early 1900s (9)

Construction men at work in great steel frame of Metropolitan Tower, looking toward East River (1908)

Construction men at work in great steel frame of Metropolitan Tower, looking toward East River (1908)

Huge floor beams at 35th story of Metropolitan Tower – looking down on Madison Square and Fifth Ave. Hotel

Huge floor beams at 35th story of Metropolitan Tower - looking down on Madison Square and Fifth Ave. Hotel

Building a Skyscraper – Placing Steel Beams, Metropolitan Tower, New York City (1905)

Building a Skyscraper Placing Steel Beams Metropolitan Tower New York City 1905

North from Metropolitan Tower over Fifth Ave. and Central Park to distant Palisades (1908)

Construction workers on skyscrapers in the early 1900s (2)

Building the great steel-framed skyscrapers — working high above the street (1906)

Construction workers on skyscrapers in the early 1900s (6)

Construction work atop NYC skyscraper (1905)

Construction work atop NYC skyscraper 1905

47 dangerous old playgrounds that our great-grandparents somehow survived

Looking down on Broadway from 40th story of Singer Building (1908)

Construction workers on skyscrapers in the early 1900s (1)

Amazing newly-discovered footage takes you back to New York in 1911

Photographing New York City

Not a construction worker, but he’s sitting on a slender support 18 stories above the pavement of Fifth Avenue (1906)

1906 Photographing New York City - on a slender support 18 stories above pavement of Fifth Avenue camera


On the roof of the great Singer Tower — over 500 feet above the street

One man is holding a camera

On the roof of the great Singer Tower--over 500 ft. above the street, New York - One man is holding a camera

Met president John R. Rogers driving last rivet (1908)

Even executives went up high sometimes! Here Mr Rogers is seen marking completion of the steel skeleton for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower, New York City.

Metropolitan Life Insurance tower - last rivet NYC 1908

Vintage skyscraper construction of the Empire State Building (1931)

Construction of the Empire State Building in New York (1931)

Worker construction of the Empire State Building in New York - Dangerous 1931 (1)

Worker construction of the Empire State Building in New York - Dangerous 1931 (2)

Absolutely riveting.

Worker construction of the Empire State Building in New York - Dangerous 1931 (3)

Worker construction of the Empire State Building in New York - Dangerous 1931 (7)

Worker construction of the Empire State Building in New York - Dangerous 1931 (4)

Take a trip back to New York's original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel & see inside this famously luxurious old hotel

Just hanging out high above the city

Worker construction of the Empire State Building in New York - Dangerous 1931 (5)

Building a skyscraper means there’s a lot going on at once

Worker construction of the Empire State Building in New York - Dangerous 1931 (16)

Worker construction of the Empire State Building in New York - Dangerous 1931 (6)

Worker construction of the Empire State Building in New York - Dangerous 1931 (8)

Worker construction of the Empire State Building in New York - Dangerous 1931 (10)

Already towering above the Chrysler Building

See the tower in the center of this photo? That’s the art deco-style Chrysler building, which — at 1,046 feet — was the tallest skyscraper in the city until the Empire State Building went up.

Worker construction of the Empire State Building in New York - Dangerous 1931 (11)

Worker construction of the Empire State Building in New York - Dangerous 1931 (9)

Worker construction of the Empire State Building in New York - Dangerous 1931 (12)

Worker construction of the Empire State Building in New York - Dangerous 1931 (13)

Gut-wrenching steel construction

Worker construction of the Empire State Building in New York - Dangerous 1931 (17)

See NYC's stunning historical Fifth Avenue mansions (1890s)

The most famous photo: Lunch Atop a Skyscraper (1932)

This well-known photo by Charles C. Ebbets shows construction workers out on a beam while building 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan. (See a shot of this photographer in action at the top of the page!)

Lunch atop a Skyscraper Charles C. Ebbets 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan 1932

Tales from old skyscraper construction: Clutches life with three fingers (1935)

By Floyd Gibbons – The Montclair Times (Montclair, New Jersey) Sep 24, 1935

You know, boys and girls, there isn’t a much more determined adventurer than the steel-worker — one of those boys who stands on a narrow girder at the top of a forty or fifty-story building tossing red-hot rivets for another steel-working adventurer fifty feet away to catch in a tin can. Those babies are so close to Adventure that they don’t know what it is. Every minute of their working day is Adventure, pure and simple.

But every once in a while one of those birds gets in a jam that is so hair-raising — so terrifying — that he just can’t dismiss it as part of the day’s work. This is what happened to Arthur Van Hoorbeck back in 1915, Art calls it an adventure, but what it really is is a sort of super adventure of a bird who has ordinary adventures every day in his life.

Worker construction of the Empire State Building in New York - Dangerous 1931 (15)

Back in 1915, Art was twenty-one years old, and a structural ironworker helping to put up the big steel skeleton of a building on Thirty-First Street near Ninth Avenue, New York City. He was working with a raising gang — the gang that takes the big steel girders from the street, hooks them onto a derrick and sets them in place at the top of the building for the riveters to do their stuff on.

Art’s job in this gang was to ride the steel beams from the ground up to the top of the building, to see that they didn’t tangle up with anything on the way up, and to help set them in place, once they got to the top.

About 10 o’clock in the morning, a reach truck pulled in, loaded with what Art called bucks — big angle irons that are used by steel-workers to stiffen the elevator shafts in skyscrapers. The truck dropped its load, and Art went to work getting those giant sticks of steel up to the top of the towering framework. He ran the cable through about 25 of them and gave the man on the guide line the signal to take them away.

Clutches life with three fingers (1935)

Art acts to remove danger to others

Down below a bell clanged as the engineer started the winch that operated the derrick. The big cable started to tighten — to pull the angle irons together in a bunch. But just as the last few feet of slack was going out of that cable, Art saw something that was liable to cause trouble. There was one of those angle irons that the cable hadn’t been looped through. If it got aloft with that load, it might come loose in mid-air and fall on somebody.

Art had a crowbar handy. He grabbed it and tried to pin that bar — to pull it out before the load left the ground. He pinned it all right, but in doing so he slipped, fell against the load, and as he did so, two of the angle irons, brought together by the tightening cable, clamped together over Art’s hand.

See old Atlantic City hotels & beaches back when New Jersey was a beautiful vacation destination 100 years ago

At the same time, the load started to move upward, and Art went with it, dangling by three crushed fingers held tightly between two iron bars.

Slowly, steadily, the big load rose toward the top of the building, Art dangling precariously beneath it. Those iron bars pinned his fingers tightly — but not too tightly. Any sudden jar might shake him loose — send him plummeting to the ground below. The load passed the second story — the third. Art was five stories up in the air before anyone spied him. Then the man of the guideline saw what was happening and signaled the man on the roof.

Construction workers on skyscrapers in the early 1900s (6)

An injudicious action could have killed Art Van Hoorbeck then and there. A bell to the engineer would have been disastrous, for any signal at all given while the load is in midair calls for an emergency stop, and a short stop would surely have shaken Art loose. But the man at the top kept his head. He let the load ride.

Slowly the load mounted toward the top — the fifteenth story. Art prayed that his crushed fingers would hold. We didn’t dare raise his free hand to get a double grip on those irons — didn’t dare move for fear the added strain would pull him loose completely.

Down below, he could see a crowd gathering in the street, looking up at him, expecting him to come crashing down at any minute.

In the end, it was the man at the top who saved Art’s life — the bird who, in the first place, had had the good sense not to give the emergency stop signal. Tommy Todd was his name, and Art wants him to get full credit for his headwork.

When the load finally get to the fifteenth story, it was Tommy who landed it carefully, gently, so that Art wouldn’t be jarred off — wouldn’t be crushed beneath the settling irons. When the load was safely landed, other men went to work with crowbars and pried Art’s hand loose, and then, when it was all over — well — Art fainted.

When Art came to again, they had his hand in a pail of hot water. An ambulance was there to take him to the hospital. but Art turned it down and went home instead.

He was back on the job three days later, but with those smashed fingers of his, he couldn’t do much but hold a red flag for the next two or three months.

And, by golly, I bet those were the longest, dullest three months ever spent by a bird whose very life was one continuous adventure and who had to dangle by three broken fingers 15 stories in the air before he’d done anything he thought was worth talking about.

While it’s hard for most of us to imagine anything other than the Empire State Building occupying the corner of Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street, the site was originally the John Thompson Farm in the late 1700s, then later home of the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and The Four Hundred — the social elite of New York — in the late 1800s.

The Empire State Building ended up as an office building rather than a hotel, and topped out at 102 floors rather than the stated 80 in the article, but two other predictions were pretty close.

Rather than the 18 months forecast for construction, only 15 months were needed, and it held the title of world’s tallest building from 1931 until the completion of the North Tower of the original World Trade Center in the 1970s. – AJW

The construction of the Empire State Building

The skyscraper construction of the Empire State Building (1929-1930)

Carbondale Free Press (Carbondale, Illinois) August 30, 1929

Al Smith gets $50,000 New York job – Will be head of company to build world’s largest hotel

New York — Former Governor Alfred E Smith will head a company to be incorporated to build what will be the highest building in the world on the site of the Waldorf Astoria hotel. The building will be known as the Empire State Building, and will be eighty stories high, and will cost (with the $16,000,000 paid for the site) more than $66,000,000. It will occupy more than two acres of land, with 200 feet on Fifth Avenue and 425 feet on Thirty-third and Thirty-fourth streets.

The construction of the Empire State Building

Smith, who will be president of the Empire State Building Corporation, made the announcement in his suite at the Biltmore Hotel, in accordance with a promise made months ago to newspaper reporters that he would announce his business plans as soon as he determined them.

The former governor said that supervision of the construction of the building and its management would be his main business. Since his retirement from the governorship Smith has been elected a director of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and the New York County Trust Company, but his duties in these directorates have taken but a small part of his time.

Although the Governor made no mention of it in his announcement, it was said by friends that his salary as president of the building company would be about $50,0000 a year. Smith said that as president of the company he would be in executive control of the creation of the building and its maintenance and operation thereafter. 

Sitting on a beam high above New York City

Contracts for the demolition of the hotel building will be let soon after his return, and the work of tearing down the hotel will begin immediately. Smith said that engineers consulted have estimated that about a year and a half would be required for the erection of the building.

Skyscraper construction workers (1908)

Studies of thrilling lives: The sky skipper

By William Allen Johnston — Burlington Daily News (Burlington, Vermont) November 6, 1908

NEW YORK — If the Metropolitan Tower [The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower] had ever been erected at Coney Island as a sightseeing marvel, there would have been record-breaking crowds gaping over the construction of one of the chief wonders of this most wonderful age. As it is, built in our hurrying, work-a-day midst, it gets but a passing notice.

Someday, stop for a half-hour beneath its shadow and look up at it as it pierces the sky — look up and think of it. Consider the great girders, beams, columns and struts that make its grand framework, rising story on story from a foundation weight of twenty tons a single girder till they look on high like delicate, filmy tracery.

1905-Construction work atop NYC skyscraper at ClickAmericana com

Think of the awful strain and stress of them, the overpowering strength of them, the century enduring might of them, and then give a thought to the human ants who placed them there, swung them, turned them, set them and riveted them there, swarming over them, swinging, clutching, climbing, walking ‘over them, up story by story, up, up, till the last dizzy, swaying beam was anchored fast fifty stories and seven hundred feet above your secure, earth stepping self.

Think of the top man on that last beam, with only a four-inch flange between his feet and a sickening, breathless drop of seven hundred feet — think of him with a grin on his lips and a comical wink in his eye, but give him full credit for the grit in his heart, and then, if you like, walk over to Vandewater street some day to the corner hotels and boarding houses near the anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge and take a look at him.

There is one bright, particular star in the sky skipper’s firmament, above him constantly, whether he is swinging to the cable of a towering bridge or tiptoeing a beam on the fiftieth story — that is the star of luck.

They are young fellows, nearly all of them, and they believe in luck. fate or whatever you may call fl. After they grow old — if they do grow old — they lose this confidence, but they are not sky skippers then — not many!

1908-Great 40 story tower of the Singer Building (during construction), New York, U.S.A. at ClickAmericana com

“Sure, you’ve got but one life to lose, and you can lose it but once — and that on the ground as quick as in the air,’ said one. Then he went on to tell me of a man, “Billy” Schroeder, out in Ohio, who had just been killed by a fall of eleven feet.

“And I fell seventy-eight feet once,” he added, “off a bridge in North Carolina, and only got my chin scratched. Fell! in the soft sand on my bands and knees — ca-slump I went, but not a bone broken — just my stomach upset!”

He had worked on the Metropolitan tower, this man, from the foundation girders to the fifty-second top story.

“And I take off my bat to the builders of that job,” said he. “Not an accident on it, not even a hurt, except one man got his hand smashed.”

“Do you call that luck?”

“No,” said he, hesitatingly. “They’re getting mighty careful nowadays — and we had a good bellman. A great deal depends on him. Yes, they’re getting careful, and yet on that little one across the street” — pointing at the building on the old Fifth Avenue Hotel site — they call eighteen story buildings “little ones” now — “they killed a man last week.”

Building the great steel-framed skyscrapers - working high above the street at ClickAmericana com
Building the great steel-framed skyscrapers – working high above the street, New York City

It is a fine piece of work, this erection of a fifty-two story tower above a crowded square of streets without accident to those above or below. There were some narrow escapes, however.

One day a drift pin, weighing about three pounds, rolled innocently off a plank on the fiftieth story. Clang! It hit against a flange on the thirty-ninth story and went hurtling out into the air — on, out and over to a Broadway car as it swung into the curve in front of the Flatiron Building. It shot through the roof of the car like a cannonball, and buried itself in the floor, after skinning the side of a suitcase owned by a swooning lady passenger.

The men in the tower did not know of the occurrence till a city inspector, round-eyed, came rushing over to warn them; and then they saw the ling of cars halted in the street. Aun architect estimated the impact force of this high falling bolt as equal to that of a ton and a half weight an inch from the ground.

Again a “dolly bar,” weighing forty pounds, fell from the forty-eighth, story down to the twelfth where it hit a projecting beam, bent like a rainbow and toppled harmlessly over in an adjoining roof. “I saw her go,” said the man responsible, “and right in line was the skylight of a bakery with a lot of people working. My heart was in my mouth, and when she fell clear, I jammed on my hat and went down.”

On the sidewalk along the street side of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church, there was, until recently, the print of a heavy maul that fell from the fortieth story. It rebounded high above the heads of two petrified teamsters and chipped away a large chunk of marble.l.

Construction workers on skyscrapers in the early 1900s (7)

Then one day a derrick broke and went down, carrying with it a huge stone and a section of the scaffolding. No one was hurt below, but there were some quick leaps to safety above from just a hair’s breadth of death. “I see a plank come dustin’ down,” said one man, “and I ran along a steel beam like it was a whole sidewalk. A ‘pusher’ standing by me ran the other way, toward Dr. Parkhurst’s church — ran right under the plank and just missed it by an inch.”

“‘Why did you run that way, Bill?” said I when it was over and we were breathing easy.

“Oh, well,” said he, “I thought I was done for, and I might as well run for the church and make things convenient for a funeral!”

Luck! That is the sky skipper’s goddess, the inspiration of his song, “We never say die.” Luck protects the job, and — if grim Death does perchance enter — protects him. That, day and night, is the uplifting hope in his secret sou

But there are other factors. “Green hands are bad,” said one man. “They cause a lot of trouble and kill many a good man.

“You see, good men watch one another — and work together. You know that and you feel safe — — and keep cool and clear-headed. But let a green man get In the squad and you get nervous — and pretty soon something happens.

“Look at the Williamsburg Bridge — only four men killed, and three of them by a derrick falling, that nobody could help. And now take the Blackwell’s Island Bridge — a green man’s job. Sixty-seven killed. And out on those big steel! works going up at Gary, Indiana. I guess they average a man a day.”

“Who are these green men?”

“Sailors — mostly. They’re used to climbing and all that, but they’re not used to iron, and there’s a heap of difference between a boat and a bridge.”

Dangerous construction workers on a suspended iron section at ClickAmericana com
Title: Sailors on land–agile construction workers on a suspended iron section, 200 feet above ground, New York City

Then there’s the foreman — another factor. Over at the Jersey powerhouse of the new North River tunnels is a foreman with a remarkable record to his credit — not a single accident to his men in twenty-eight years of work.

It is interesting to talk with this man. He has grown old with his trade and up with it, and his present responsible place is clear proof of what the sober, industrious bridgeman can do. Even while I talked with him the other side of the picture was presented — a man younger than he, but broken with drink, standing before him with averted head and nervously appealing for work.

The foreman shook his head firmly. ‘No, Jim,” said he, “I couldn’t trust you. Stay sober a month and then come around.”

NYC East River bridge construction (1908) at ClickAmericana com
Workmen putting in place a huge section, Blackwell’s Island bridge over East River, New York

“There’s one of the best men in the business,” continued the foreman as the man shuffled away, “but drink’s got him.”

Few of the front men have domestic ties. That accounts very largely, it would seem, for the dissipation so common among them. They are “floaters” for the most part; rovers from Maine to San Francisco, from New Orleans to Vancouver, knowing no home nor permanent habitation. High wages is the magnet that drifts them, now to New York, now to ‘Frisco, now to Birmingham. Working overtime and Sundays they run their regular weekly wage of $24 up as high as $75, “and that for a man who can’t take cure of his money is very bad,” said the foreman.

Inside the Titanic: When the largest ship sank in 1912, here's what the luxury-first interior looked like

“No, they’re not like divers and steeple climbers,” he added, “and yet” — the foreman laughed — “I struck an old bridge man not long ago who was a diver and bridge man too. I’ve got him with me now.

“I was building a coal pocket at Weehawken, and one day a ‘lumber dolly’ went down in a tank of muddy, slimy water about sixteen feet deep. We were fishing for it when along comes this ‘floater.’ He had already asked me twice for work. ‘Say,’ says he, walking up, ‘if I get that lumber dolly out do I get a job?”

“Sure you do,” says I.

“Well, sir, he goes and gets a long piece of one-inch hose and a rope. Then he kicks off his clothes, slits the hose so it covers his nose, holds it fast with one hand and goes down a ladder.

“Pretty soon he comes up with the rope ‘Now, pull up your lumber dally,’ says he.

“Say, you’re all right,’ says I.

“Hmm,” says he. ‘I’ve been doing that every day down in Lake Pontchartrain.”

“Yes,” continued the foreman, after a pause, “I’ve seen the skyscraper grow from a young one put up at Eighteenth street and Tenth avenue — twenty years ago we thought that a big one — right up to the Singer and Metropolitan towers.

Great Hudson Terminal Buildings - Antique photo

“It took us six months to put up that first one. Nowadays in that time, we could build a thirty-story frame.”

So the skyscraper is new, and so is the sky skipper a product of the decade, You might almost say. Perhaps in the next generation, he will change, like the cowboy of the plains. sacrificing his wild picturesqueness to a saner, steadier, more matter of fact devotion to his trade.

I was struck with this fact one day, while standing on the massive anchorage of the new Manhattan Bridge, whither I had climbed by a series of irregular, ticklish outside stairway.

A roly-poly little urchin came up to the foreman, with whom I was talking. He was a perfect diminutive type of the bridgeman — greasy overalls, open neck shirt and all — and his round face, beneath the battered cap, was very old and grave.

“Say,” said he, “the supe says measure up that length of cable — the one that broke.”

The foreman bowed with mock humility. “All right, Mr. Davis,” said he. “Anything more I can do for you?”

1908-West St. Building, North River and Jersey City, seen from 35th story of the Singer Tower, New York, U.S.A. at ClickAmericana com
West St. Building, North River and Jersey City, seen from 35th story of the Singer Tower, New York, U.S.A. 1908

The youngster shot a warning look at him and took pains to spit disdainfully before replying. “Yes,” said be calmly, “hurry up about it — an’ I’ll wait for it! There be stooped and picked up a cable splice. “You oughta keep these splices in a keg,” said he. “We’re running short on ’em.”‘ And of such, perhaps, will the second generation be.

Through a blowy window in the great anchorage pier of the New York end of the bridge I looked out upon the two towers rising three hundred and twenty-six feet above those foundation caissons, sunk 80 deep that toward the end of the work, the builders offered men $10 a day for two shifts of forty-five minutes each to go down in the terrific air pressure.

The great cables swing gracefully out, up to the towers and down again in gigantic sweeps. All along them, little men, like monkeys, are clambering and swinging far out, their “tail wrenches” gleaming in circles as they work.

1904-Erecting the 23-story steel skeleton for new Times Bldg. - from 42nd St. N. up Broadway, New York at ClickAmericana com

There are four great cables from which to suspend the mighty structure beneath, only four, but each Is built up of thirty-six strands as big as your arm, and every strand is composed of two hundred and fifty-six stout steel wires.

Every wire is strung separately, the ends being carried back and forth from Brooklyn to New York on a wheel fitted to an endless cable. Every wire is thirty-three hundred feet long, so you can figure easily the entire length of wire used. Think, too, of the mill that spun It out. It would nearly encircle the mighty earth!

One cloudy morning I started out with two permits, one to visit the building at Fourth Avenue and Seventeenth street and the other to go up to the top of the Metropolitan tower. It was destined to be a most unusual and exciting morning.

1907-construction-Work in roadway, Blackwell's Island Bridge at ClickAmericana com

By noon, a heavy pall of low, dark clouds covered the city, and suddenly it grew as dark as the late twilight, and within the grand tron cage of the Fourth avenue building the scene seemed to take on the appearance of a veritable inferno.

Down in the dark basement brilliant are lights were sputtering and turning ghastly white the tense upturned faces of the workers. Clouds of steam burst forth from the putting hoisting engines, and from the misty depths came the mournful clanging of bells, now sharp, now slow, “boom bells” and “load bells” — one to gu ahead and another to stop, two to “slack off,” three quick ones to lower fast and six bells “all off.”

Worker construction of the Empire State Building in New York - Dangerous 1931 (18)

Yellow lights were swinging up ou the black rafters, and over on a scaffold in a dark corner was a flawing hand forge, throwing into bold relief the scowling features of the man bending over it and plucking the white-bot rivets from its bed of coals. He was dexterously “tending” three squads of riveters, one up a story above him to his right, another off forty feet to his left, another still two stories below him.

Now be walks swiftly to the fore and with a sweep of his tongs a white bot bolt goes streaking and sparking through the semi-darkness, and bang! into a keg beld out to catch it: then, swiftly, another to the left and another fiery dart goes hissing down.

“Rat-a-tap-tap-tap” and “Rrrr-rap-rap-rap” go the pneumatic hammers. “Ap-ap-a-tap-tap,” answer the “dolly-bars” held tight against the rivet heads, and in less time than it takes to tell of it, the long, gleaming white bolt becomes a gray, squat, double-headed rivet binding the flanges in a grip that seemingly will never give way.

Suddenly hoarse cries arose from the stretch below, and a six-horse truck loaded with a monster boiler swept up from the square, circled gracefully about and drew up under a swinging maze of cables, pulleys and tackle blocks. Two long beam trucks heavy loads of steel columns swinging underneath followed.

A big tripod of derrick masts had been hurriedly rigged to help swing the boiler from the truck and start it on its cumbersome descent to the basement.

On one of the masts a binding rope had stuck, and its obstinacy aroused the ire of a foreman standing below with clenched fists. “Kick that rope down!’ he yelled to the men on the fourth story beam. Get busy!”


A momentary silence followed, and then a deep voice answered sharply: — “All right! Look out!” A man’s form stood poised for an instant on the beam and then sprang up and down with outstretched arms and bowed legs — ten feet to the swaying mast, which he clutched fast as he jumped recklessly up and down upon the encircling rope.

Two idle Italians, watching the work from below, turned, exchanged glances and walked away shaking their heads. This was no “job” for then,

Now, girdled fore and aft with heavy chains and guy ropes, a twenty-ton load of beams and columns began slowly and swayingly its dangerous ascent, followed from story to story with strange, varied yells: “Ah — yoy — yoy!” “Yeow — yeow — yeow!” “Hey — y — y!” and then all together, “Ho — hoo — hoo — hooo!” as the men scampered up columns and over beams and struts.

On the fourth story, where the load stuck for a strenuous ten minutes, a short, square-shouldered forgeman stood with his back against a column calmly directing the work. His derby was pulled down over his eyes, his face was calm and expressionless, but from his lips there issued a steady, monotonous flow of profanity, embracing every oath used in the English speaking world, on land and sea.

The forgeman shook his head admiringly, “Swears like a preacher, doesn’t he?” said he.

“I was thinking of the men,” I answered. “Don’t they get mad?’

“Sure, no!” he replied. “They’re all good friends.”

Suddenly the forgeman threw back his head and cocked an ear, the foreman grabbed off his hat and looked straight up; a telepathic signal of disaster reached the riveters and their hammers stopped, while the men on the beams clutched at columns nearby and stared into one another’s faces.

Faint cries of warning floated down from the tenth story, followed swiftly by a ripping, tearing sound, and then in quick succession, “Crash! Bang! Rip! Crash!”

“Get away from that airshaft!” yelled the quick-witted foreman, and swiftly the cry went from story to story. Pandemonium broke loose in a twinkling, the air was filled with dust and flying splinters and hoarse, rattling reverberations; there was a hurrying and scurrying. a frantic climbing and leaping to protecting scaffolds and away to the outer beams.

A great hullabaloo arose from the crowded square an incredibly brief time there was a sea of thousands of upturned faces. . The reserves trom two stations came rushing and ambulances followed from all directions: Rumors flew about of ten — twenty — fifty casualties.

In the meantime, the building within slowly readjusted itself. The fearful voice silence that followed the crash ended and anxious inquiries rang out from story to story.

“Anybody killed up there?”


“Up there?”


“Anybody hurt at all?”

“Yes!” answered a clear, decisive voice from below.


“Kid Sweeney,” came the quick response. “Slapped on the wrist!”

“By his lady friend?’

“Naw — by a splinter!”

1908-Construction men at work in great steel frame of Metropolitan Tower, looking toward East River, N.Y.C. at ClickAmericana com

And so, the tension ended, in wild whoops, “Haw! Haws!” and raucous catcalls, and fifteen minutes later, every man was back at his post. Rat-a-tap-tap went the hammers, and the work was on. A big derrick with a snapped guy rope had fallen on the tenth story, caught another derrick, and the two had pitched halfway down the air shaft.

“This is the worst possible day to go up,” they told me at the Metropolitan tower. “The city’s in darkness.”

“It ought to be a weird sight,” I answered, “Just the time I would like to go up.”

That was a long trip up on the elevator, moving slowly and with bells ringing to warn “heads away” at the unfinished floors. “Perhaps someday we’ll have ‘sleeper’ elevators for long journeys,” said the guide jokingly.

Up, up, we went, past the twentieth, thirtieth, fortieth, and partway up to the fiftieth story. We were in the small, tapering point of the tower now, where the stonemasons are still at work.

“Take the ladder,” said the guide briefly, and we went up to another platform. Here he looked eat me keenly. “Want to try another?” We reached a third platform, where another ladder stood before us.

“Can you stand another?” asked the guide. “Ever get dizzy?” We climbed the long ladder and stood upon a small wooden platform.

“Now,” said the guide, “you are higher up than any visitor has been. Hold fast to this column and look!”

It was a weird sight. We were detached from the earth, hanging dreamily, breathlessly skyward; beneath was a small, smoke rimmed radius twinkling with many tiny lights.

Construction workers on skyscrapers in the early 1900s (1)
Looking down on Broadway from 40th story of Singer Building, New York, U.S.A. 1908

Strings of toy cars are filing and crossing each others’ path. Yes, and there are files swarming this way and that, ceaselessly hurrying, with queer, jerky movements along the streets and avenues,

A horse falls down in his shafts. Down there he is creaking and rolling in his harness, and a crowd gathers. Up in the sky, the accident seems comical — as if a bug had slipped.

The buildings look squat and compressed as flat as the streets — a monotonous checkerboard of square roofs with steaming chimneys. Even the Flatiron Building pales into insignificance. Distances seem as nothing. Now I realize how easily that drift pin sprang over to Broadway; it seems as if you could toss a coin still further,

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Now a breeze from the south fans our faces and soon a stiff gale is blowing. The panorama as swiftly as if curtains in rapid succession were base swept aside.

The huge, inky clouds are rolled north over Harlem, and soon the big buildings of Forty-Second Street loom up dimly like grim towering battlements. The lurid red light in the east disappears and the heavy, drabness of the west becomes opaque; and now appear the phantom, wharf and shores of New Jersey, and Brooklyn.

1908-Four hundred ft. above the street - iron worker on the Singer Tower, New York, U.S.A. at ClickAmericana com
Four hundred ft. above the street – iron worker on the Singer Tower, New York, U.S.A. 1908

Now the rivers teem with life — splashing, saucy tugboats, swift, flat ferryboats, and a stately ocean liner making its way down the North River. From off the Battery, there is a smoke strung procession all the way out to the misty gateways of Sandy Hook.

Swiftly, still, the circle widens till it sweeps out beyond the mountains of New Jersey, the hills of Westchester, the bluffs of Long Island, clear over to the silvery waters of Jamaica Bay. “Too bad it isn’t clearer,” said the guide. “We could see the houses at Rockaway.”

I was looking down to the humming streets. What a narrow neck of land it is, this great Manhattan! It seems almost that should the tower topple over we would be thrown in the river. I glanced fearfully out to a projecting corner, studied the rivets in it, thought of the men who put them there, and locked up to find the guide interpreting my thoughts end gazing quizzically at me,

“Daredevils!” I said.

“Without fear in their hearts,” he answered. “I don’t believe they have any hearts — or nerves.”

Then I thought of poor “Denny” — “rammed dead by a derrick and fell in me arms.”

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. There’s a popular meme going around these days featuring a photo of one of these unprotected construction workers atop a skyscraper, with the line: “My CEO makes 10 times what I make, because he assumes more risk!” :D In all seriousness, I couldn’t imagine being one of these guys — especially considering that, among other things, they didn’t get regular bathroom or meal breaks.

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