Ten years ago—on the day everything changed for so many—women, children and grown men cried. Even tough men, men who worked with their hands or on big machines, men who wouldn’t ever let their wives see them cry, cried. Some of them were ironworkers, and many of them were Mohawk.
When New York City’s Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001, pieces of Mohawk history fell, too. And now, as the rebuilding of lower Manhattan continues, those pieces are being put back, in steel and in stone. This is a shared history too few outside Native communities know. From 1966, when construction began on the Twin Towers, to 1972, when the South Tower opened, 10,000 people worked on one of the boldest construction projects in history, the tallest building in the world at that time. Men of Canada’s Kahnawake Reserve were among those 10,000—they helped build the World Trade Center up from the ground to the sky, from public controversy to iconic status, from a blueprint to a symbol of the greatest city on Earth.
Mohawk men also stood in the Pit, what would later be known as Ground Zero, and helped clean up after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Most Americans don’t know that, either. But the story of Mohawk ironworkers didn’t begin on September 11, 2001. And it didn’t begin in 1966. This story started in the late 1800s, on a railway bridge over the St. Lawrence River, near Quebec.
Iron in the Blood
According to the National Ironworkers Training Program for American Indians, based in Broadview, Illinois, “Native Americans have been part of ironworkers history since 1886 when the St. Lawrence River was bridged on tribal land in Quebec. Ironworker foremen noticed that Mohawks, who were working as laborers, were surefooted on the span and soon hired them as ironworkers.”
“My great-grandfather worked on that bridge,” says 64-year-old George Norton. Opened in 1891, that span would be followed by another that opened for car use in 1934. Norton says his father helped build the 1934 bridge. Norton’s people, including many of the men in Kahnawake, had worked as lumberjacks, but they became skilled ironworkers at the turn of the last century. He estimates that over the past 100 years “60 percent to 70 percent of the men in Kahnawake worked as ironworkers.”
“Our forefathers worked on the Golden Gate Bridge,” Norton says. Others worked on projects in the middle of the country. Some married and never came back to the reserve, but many would come back to see their families between jobs, or their families moved with them from job to job around the country. Ironwork became a family legacy passed down from grandfather, to father, to son that they all shared through the generations. Significant life passages are marked by the jobs the men had: “My mother said my dad was working on the George Washington Bridge in New York City when I was born,” says 84-year-old Les Albany.
Albany, too, became an ironworker. He apprenticed with his father on a hospital after getting special permission from Brooklyn’s Board of Education, where he was enrolled in high school. He was just 16 years old. “That’s when I got my union book,” he says. After working off and on with his dad for three years, he was able to get his journeyman’s book and eventually became a foreman.
Albany and his father were like many of the men from Kahnawake, men who had stood high above some of the most important landmarks in this country, shaping them and making them accessible to the rest of us. Albany says his father was one of the foremen who constructed a bridge over Niagara Falls. He has a picture of his father holding the Canadian flag on the north side of the bridge. Pictured with him, just inches away, is an American holding the Stars and Stripes on the U.S. side.
Many years later, Albany says he was hired to do regular maintenance on the George Washington Bridge, the one his father had helped build. One day, he recalls, his father asked where he was working. Les told him, and his father said, “What are you doing there?” Les laughs when he recalls what he told his father, “Correcting your mistakes.”
Les Albany worked on the Twin Towers, leading a diverse group. Of the eight men in his crew, three were Mohawks, two were Frenchmen (from Canada), and three were New Yorkers. Despite the politically charged time in which they worked, Albany says no one ever experienced significant prejudice or bias. “There was a lot of kidding going around,” he adds, “but nothing serious.”
Seventy-year-old William Stacey worked on the towers, too, but he came to ironwork much later than Albany and Norton, in the late 1960s, when he was 26, after working as a tree surgeon. He says he started a new career in ironwork because “the pay was about three times as much.” His first job was for General Motors in Detroit, where his buddy’s father worked. The dad worked nights; the younger men worked days, and “we stayed in his apartment and never saw the guy,” Stacey recalls. Other jobs took him to Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Massachusetts and then New York City.
“When they were building the Trade Center there were so many jobs all over New York,” Stacey remembers. “There were so many buildings going up.”
He says he did “everything from soup to nuts” on the towers. “I started putting bolts in on the first tower, on floors 9 through 11,” he says, and when that job was finished, he started working on the second tower. “When you’re on the ground,” he adds, “you’ve got a good job.” He says there were good times to be had up high, too. “We used to race, one gang against the other.” Unfortunately, when they’d finished early, his gang would be sent to help a slower group finish their job. “We learned our lesson,” he says. “There was no good in racing.”
Though Stacey says “the Indian guys usually hung out with the Indian guys,” he agrees with Albany’s claim that the men building the towers worked together well. “I don’t remember any discrimination against anybody.”
Norton points out that Mohawk men were not just laborers; many of them were specialists who knew all the techniques of ironwork. “They were highly respected,” he says. “My forefathers were allowed into the unions because of their experience and how they worked. A few of our people got in, and then more and more got in. We’ve been in over 100 years now.”
Even Mohawk men with college educations became ironworkers, Norton says. With fair working conditions and the lure of a union card, “a lot of them made more money doing this than working in an office.” That doesn’t mean conditions were always ideal, however. “You could fall from just 10 feet and get killed,” he points out.
Despite the dangers, ironwork at the World Trade Center was exciting, he says. He remembers reading in the newspapers about public opposition to the
project, especially since “hundreds of buildings had to be moved” to clear the site. But when construction began, he says the workers were told that “no one would build anything taller.”
Norton says that many of the 300 or so men from Kahnawake living in Brooklyn and New Jersey maintained close ties years after the Twin Towers were built—there was, he says “a lot of pride” over what they had accomplished together.
A Tear Falls
Stacey has similar fond memories of good times despite the often dangerous work that, for him, included putting the antenna atop the North Tower. He says working on the World Trade Center was a highlight of his life, and when the planes plowed into those towers on 9/11, he came home from work on the morning shift “and sat where I’m sitting right now and watched it all day.” He is quiet for a moment, and then adds, “It was sad. It was an awful, sad feeling.”
Albany says that on 9/11 he “was working at my daughter-in-law’s, and when I came home for coffee, my wife said, ‘Something happened at the Trade Center.’?” When the first tower fell, “I knew the second was gonna go down, too. I knew how heavy the weight on it was, hundreds of tons.”
“I think I had a tear in my eye, so I went outside,” he says. “I didn’t want my wife to see what a wuss I was, but all those people burning and jumping out.…Oh, I felt it.”
Into the Pit
Norton says he was working on the Tappan Zee Bridge, just north of Manhattan, on 9/11. “It was around noon when we heard the full extent of what happened,” he recalls. The next day he was sent to Ground Zero to work as a foreman. He stayed in the Pit for four months.
When Norton talks about first entering Ground Zero, he sometimes lapses into the present tense, even though it all happened a decade ago. “Tower Six, which I had worked on, I couldn’t believe that there were just two walls left. The core was gone.” He called an old buddy who had worked on Tower Six with him. “I said, ‘Our building, the one that took us so long to put up, there’s just two walls left.’?”
He says he felt “more sad, I guess. Not angry. Not mad. Just unbelievable how this could happen. It took a while to sink in. Seeing the firemen pulling out their own people. Everything had to stop, to show respect. That was hard.
“That smell didn’t go away for I don’t know how long. It was awful. There was a yellow mist over the site.”
Norton believes the mist may have been from burning plastics, but he isn’t sure. “I’ve been to Mount Sinai hospital four times,” he says. “They found some aluminum in my blood. They say it’s not a danger, but it’s aluminum. I don’t feel any side effects from it, though. Hopefully I won’t. It has been 10 years.”
Norton was given a post-traumatic stress test after he stopped working at Ground Zero, which he passed. “My parents had died a year apart, in 1999 and 2000. I’m not saying I’m some kind of a tough guy, but I didn’t cry when they died. After I saw the remains of the Trade Center [on 9/12], when I was driving home, I cried.” Norton stops for a moment to collect his thoughts, his emotions, then adds, “I never told anybody that.”
He says the support of hundreds of anonymous New Yorkers kept him going. Many times, after leaving Ground Zero for the day, he would pass people standing by the West Side Highway, “waving flags. That gave you a lot of pride that you were doing something there, trying to build America back.”
Norton says he didn’t always want to go back to work at Ground Zero, but the residents of the community where he lived at the time “made me feel better and made me want to go back to work.” He remembers, though, that about 200 men simply stopped showing up to work at Ground Zero because they couldn’t take the emotional strain that included uncovering human remains. “When we found something,” Norton says, “we would call the firefighters, and they would pull it out.” Sometimes what they found was a body part. Sometimes it was just a boot.
When asked if there is something people should know about the Mohawks who built New York City and this country, Norton immediately starts talking about his forefathers, who he says had to work for whites at first but fought their way into the unions, carved out a niche for themselves and, after a while, gained the respect of the men they worked with and the men they worked for.
“I was proud of my great-grandfather, whom I knew personally,” he says. “He was born in 1868. He died in 1959.” Norton says people are always surprised to hear he knew anyone born in the 1800s, especially someone as significant in his life as his great-grandfather. “Yeah, I knew him,” Norton proudly tells people. “He was an ironworker.”