1920s: Balancing on the Empire State

‘Construction of the Empire State Building was one of the most remarkable feats of the 20th century. It took only 410 days to build, by 3,400 workers, many of them desperate for work at the height of the Depression. The work force was made up largely of immigrants, along with hundreds of Mohawk Indian iron workers.’

- Washington Post

All images by Lewis Wickes

48 Responses

  1. Lioness

    The caps amaze me. They must have been tight fitting to stay on way up there.

  2. maverickmark

    Shard is 700 days to date being built near London Bridge. Maybe its Health and Safety. Have a look at the guys standing on planks. Thanks for this

  3. Matthew

    Fascinating – were there any construction workers that fell to their death? Health and safety seems to have been a bit … lacking back then.

  4. tim

    During the planning stages, it was estimated that one construction worker would die per floor (so about 100 in all). In the end, only a dozen or so people were killed.

  5. CharlesH.

    Hanging on to dear life with only thick leather gloves. All the more amazing is the “just another day’s work” look on the men’s faces.

  6. Uncle B

    Shameless exploitation of white European immigrants by Capitalists, Corporatists of America – Detroit City built to its former greatness by same guys. North America’s mineral deposits, mined the same way, Forests exploited by same good blood, Steel, Copper, Silver all Smelted likewise – Now, Europe has run dry, easy resources done, Capitalists , Corporatists turn their back on America’s workers, look to Asia for even cheaper labor, even less restrictions.

    • Pat

      Those men had balls of steel.!! This country was built by european immigrants, african americans, chinese, aside from the obvious they came here by choice to make a better life for their family’s which they did & are still doing … just my opinion

  7. Ray Martin

    Holy crap in a handcart! I’ve worked at height but I get the wobbles just looking at these.

  8. Phil Woodford

    They did a floor every four days? And the thing is still standing? That’s pretty incredible. If I’d known how quickly it was thrown together, I doubt I would have taken the elevator to the top!

  9. Anonymouse

    I’m with Uncle B on this one!
    But those pictures give me vertigo… :P

  10. Bob the Builder

    That looks really scary. How many people do you think died from falling off it. Why do they not have any safety cables!



  12. Olde Phart

    Ironworkers were (are) the elite of the building trades and intensely proud of what they did. Anyone asking for a safety line would have been laughed off the job.

  13. Gary Dantzler

    Once in a while, I go there. I get off at the top floor, go out on the roof, jump off and then play like I am hurt when I hit the ground. People are so gullible!! Had to be at least one comedian on this. My job is done. Other than that, when I built houses, I went no further than 2 floors. Freeze up every time! WOW WHAT A BUNCH OF BRAVE MEN is all I can say!!!

  14. The Voice of Sanity

    Hey, Uncle B,

    Now that you’ve spouted your Marxist/Communist claptrap, how about leaving this festering pile of capitalist and corporatist exploitation and heading to a real worker’s paradise, like Cuba or North Korea? I’m sure you’ll be much happier someplace like that.

    • The Voice of Banality

      Hehe! Cut_n_paste_knee_jerk_response_#23 if I’m not mistaken.

  15. Minky Urungus

    ^Apt username.

    Ahhhh, how I still love capitalism.

    And, on a semi-related note…these pictures are incredible.

  16. marcos

    the photos in the empire state generate a cold column and belly
    I like tall, but exaggerated

  17. Hairslave

    Amazing! But can anybody explain to me why I wouldn’t have any problem doing most of these tasks on my roof, but the idea of doing it at the top of the Empire State Building scares me witless?? I’ve always wondered what difference it really makes…

  18. Jason

    Your perspective/balance is thrown off when the background is that far off. We are accustomed to the edges of our visual field being closer. Also, of course, there is more wind the higher you are. Even on a day with no wind at ground level, you’ll feel it as low as fifty feet off the ground.
    You’re right about workers’ bravado. But as someone who makes his living often working off the ground, I can tell you that despite our proclivity for boldness, it makes no sense. And as much as I am not a fan of regulations, these pictures both amaze and sadden me. Men will do just about anything to feed their families. But they shouldn’t be asked to take such risks. They were mostly willing to do so because there were few alternatives.

  19. Mark Richards

    In the photograph of the worker signaling the Hookman my first impression was that the photographer caught the moment just as this fellow lost his balance. Unless he has foot restraints, which seem doubtful, I see no other means of stability for such a position.

    • melanie

      mark richards, it looks to me as tho a pole he may of been holding onto has been photo shopped out lol, still very brave men through necessity, totally amazing!!!

    • Tim Douglass

      I think that you can see his foot hooked through between the uprights he is standing by. Just the toe of his boot above the loop of cable.

  20. Shutterbug Mark

    Uncle B, go get a reality check! Most of the high steel workers were Mohawks from the Montreal to Kingston area of southern Quebec and eastern Ontario, and the northern New York area. The construction companies found that the Mohawks did not fear heights or dangerous conditions, but the contracts offered lower than average wages and limited labor union membership.[9]

    A Mohawk community in Brooklyn called “Little Caughnawaga” had its heyday from the 1920s through to the 60s. Brooklyn Mohawks were mostly from Kahnawake, right across the river from me.

  21. Tony Percey

    Unreal!!!! no Occupational Health & Safety back in those days, those fella’s just amaze me balls of steel for sure :)

  22. Zaidoon Yousif

    I can’t imagine that guys can stand all that risks without thinking of their safety, I tried to focus on the all workers’ faces “most of them full with spirit of work without any kind of hesitation” just like another day of work. Believe me guys we are in 2012 and there are so many countries have no building such as this one ,even one building with 20 floors. I hail the real remarkable people who completed this giant and fabulous building.

    with all best wishes to all Yours Zaidoon from Iraq,

  23. Jay

    I love these pictures.

    Americans at work without the hand wringing pant loads at OSHA.

  24. Jay

    “Now that you’ve spouted your Marxist/Communist claptrap, how about leaving this festering pile of capitalist and corporatist exploitation and heading to a real worker’s paradise, like Cuba or North Korea? I’m sure you’ll be much happier someplace like that.”

    He can’t hear you, he’s busy on his cellphone in his limo.

  25. Steve R

    You are a fool and a dupe. You’ve got a world around you built on safety regulations that keep all of our lives from being a living hell. Have you ever lived in a place that’s virtually unregulated? I thought not. I have. India. If you go to India and think you’d like the life of the majority there, you’re welcome to it. Here in the US, there’s enough prosperity to keep us all from living with daily risk of catastrophe. We can either use that wealth to let another fat cat buy another personal jet, or we can use that wealth to give everyone a fair shake at life. If you want 1933, you’re welcome to it. But you’ll have to fight people like me to get there. Do you have balls? You’re going to need them if you want to take away people’s security.

  26. amanda

    Amazing photographs! Architecture has always interested me, even more the men and woman who build our cities up. So it’s no wonder I married an Ironworker :)

  27. Becky

    i had to know…

    How many people died while building the Empire State Building?
    Though rumors of hundreds of people dying on the work site circulated during the time of its construction, official records state that only five workers were killed: one worker was struck by a truck; a second fell down an elevator shaft; a third was hit by a hoist; a fourth was in a blast area; and a fifth fell off a scaffold.

  28. NicktheLick

    You know that teaboys occasionally went up with the workers to bring them their tea & coffee? I was reading about how one teaboy used to come home with more money than his dad’s weekly wage (who was one of the iron workers seen above) every day!

  29. Ironhead1

    I am an ironworker in Chicago. We risk our lives every day doing what we learn to love. Obviously, thanks to OSHA, we have a much better chance of making it home to our families every night. I have been in some sticky situations before, but not like these brave men. Makes me very proud that people appreciate what we did/do on a daily basis.

    • SteelfixerChick

      Ironworker,Rodbusters & Steelfixers are the tradies that have never been given the recognition they deserve.
      There are various holidays in recognition for service by soldiers and people that have served in the Military…
      Maybe one day there will be appropriate recognition for construction workers…

  30. Mike Withers

    On photo 21 he is holding on with his leg. When I did construction I would often lean out a window with both hands above my head and hook a leg on a stud or the inside of a the window. I had no problem doing this on the 2nd or 3rd floors but there is no way I could do it at these heights the pictures give me butterflies in my stomach.

  31. Avatar of 1byland2bysea

    Now, it’s takes 4 years to build an off ramp for a Highway. Just imagine if we had these guys now, with better safety standards and better pay. We’d be building great structures again in America.

    ReplyReport user

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