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 in working 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.