Can you believe these 11 brave iron workers were photographed eating lunch on a steel beam at 850 feet from New York City streets? Most of us get afraid of going on our roofs, which is one story high. These guys were photographed at 69 stories high. Yikes! You can see Central Park in the background while the iron workers sit casually on a steel beam, one right next to the other eating their lunch, without any protection. Why taking so much risk?
Courageous men to build New York
In the late 1800s, American cities were starting to build skyscrapers. There were no safety regulations, so one slip, and the iron worker would fall to their death. Actually 2 out of every 5 workers died or were severely injured during the construction skyscrapers. The picture of the men eating their lunch on the beam was taken at 850 feet and if they were to fall, it would take the longest 8 seconds of their lives before they would hit the ground. Why would anyone want to do those jobs? The best way to answer this question is to look at the time and know that it was during the great depression. There were few jobs and men would do just about anything to put food on the table. The iron workers were paid 1,50$ / hour and a good day was when you didn’t fall and die.
The American Dream
The picture was taken on September 20, 1932 during the construction of the Rockefeller Center on the 69th floor. These men were immigrants who left their countries for the American dream.
“Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You, ask what you can do for your country”
John F. Kennedy
For the longest time, we never knew who the 11 men were on the beam. Through research and hype of this photo, people came forward with evidence they knew who 2 of the men were. Matty O’Shaughnessy and Sonny Glynn left Galway, Ireland in the 1920s, they traded a decade of violent uprising and Civil War for the world-famous opportunity of New York City. Little could they know that, within a few years, a cataclysmic Depression would leave one in four New Yorkers unemployed, and send Matty and Sonny dangling their boots 850 feet above Manhattan in one of the most famous—and mysterious—photographs of all time.
Manhattan: a risky construction site
In the 1920s, Manhattan was a huge construction site. Half of the structural steel produced in the United States was used to build skyscrapers in New York. Although the photograph shows real ironworkers, it is believed that the moment was staged by Rockefeller Center to promote its new skyscraper. Other photographs taken on the same day show some of the workers throwing a football and pretending to sleep on the girder.
A few photographers were present that day. William Leftwich, Charles Ebbetts and Thomas Kelley, who also risked their lives to make this famous photo. They too had to venture out on steel beams to capture this unobstructed view of the workers at lunch. In fact, it is to Charles Ebbetts that the photo credit for the famous picture came back 30 years later!
A good advertisement for Rockefeller Center
These construction workers came from all over the world. They are Irishman and some Mohawk Indians. The image first appeared in the New York Herald Tribune, October 2nd, 1932. The Herald Tribune was a major New York publication and this picture generated an enormous amount of excitement about skyscrapers during the great recession. The goal was to receive as much publicity as they possibly could to rent offices, whether you were a dentist or a hairdresser or major corporation.
The Rockefeller skyscraper would put a 250,00 people to work in the middle of the depression. There were truckers, window makers, and a variety of people with different talents. The construction of the Rockefeller Centre had an effect on the economy. Besides putting money in a quarter million people’s pocket, it brought a positive spin towards the future, towards America, and towards businesses. It brought a real sense of pride and accomplishment.
These heroes, pillars of America
We will never know who all these men were depicted in this picture but one thing for sure, these men helped build New York and represent the countless others who helped build America. It reminds me of the war heroes who help fight for freedom. We may not know they’re names but as a group, they accomplished great things!
They are the unknown workers, unsung heroes of construction. I think their casualness, the indifference to the risk that they’re taking is what separates this photograph. You see the picture once and you will never forget it. While, we only know 2 of the men depicted in this picture through many years of research, they will all be immortalized in this picture as the men who risked their lives building New York City. I think what’s important to see in the picture, is the history of the development of New York City and the great deal of credit to a group that goes uncredited.
New York Skyscrapers
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re familiar with New York’s skyline either from photographs or movies.
Skyscrapers are so heavy that they need to be build on hard and solid bedrock. Otherwise, they could sink or tilt like the Tower of Pisa. In the early days, no one ever tested the bedrock until 2011. Luckily for New York City, the tallest buildings such as the Woolworth Building and the Manhattan Life Insurance Building were built over deep bedrock surface.
The main vision for skyscrapers was for business to conducted more efficiently. There were many benefits for white collar firms to pay a premium for space in lower Manhattan to be next to firms they could find business synergy.
Can you imagine New York without the Rockefeller Center, Empire State Building, and other skyscrapers that makes the beautiful skyline? We have the brave iron workers and their coworkers to collectively thank for that!