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.
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Jim Rasenberger is a frequent contributor to the New York Times. He lives in New York City with his wife and twin sons. High Steel is his first book.From Publishers Weekly:
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.
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