“In High Steel, Jim Rasenberger immortalizes the daring ironworkers who erect the world’s most spectacular skylines.”
NEW YORK MAGAZINE
The Daring Men Who Built the World's Greatest Skyline, 1881 to the Present
Harper, March 30, 2004
A powerful first-hand account of the many generations and ethnic groups of men who have built America’s skyscrapers.
From the early days of steel construction in Chicago, through the great boom years of New York city ironwork, and up through the present, High Steel follows the trajectory of careers inextricably linked to both great accomplishment and catastrophic disaster.
The personal stories reveal the lives of ironworkers and the dangers they face as they walk across the windswept, swaying summits of tomorrow’s skyscrapers, balanced on steel girders sometimes only six inches wide. Rasenberger explores both the greatest accomplishments of ironwork—the vaulting bridges and towers that define America’s skyline—and the deadliest disasters, such as the Quebec Bridge Collapse of 1907, when 75 ironworkers, including 33 Mohawk Indians, fell to their deaths. High Steel is an accessible, thrilling, and vertiginous portrait of the lives of some of our most brave yet unrecognized men.
“Mr. Rasenberger’s sharp eye…his sympathetic imagination, and his graceful prose make for an engaging read….Beautifully written.” –New York Sun
“HIGH STEEL is a testament to an incredible group of workers [that] ranks … with Gay Talese’s classic THE BRIDGE.” –Daily News
“Reveal[s] as much about the human spirit as about technological progress…. Rasenberger’s compelling book makes us look at the familiar story of the growth of New York from a new point of view– that of the men who actually built it.” –Wall Street Journal
“Admirable….Rasenberger tell[s] his tale uncommonly well.” –Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post
“[Rasenberger] is as engaging a writer as Sebastian Junger and HIGH STEEL is a fast-paced read.”
“A dizzying look at a world hundreds of feet above New York’s mean streets.” –Maxim (4-Star Review)
“Fascinating….A breezy, anecdotal history of the daredevils of the skies who built New York City’s bridges and skyscrapers.” –New York Newsday
“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 myth-making. 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.” –Kirkus Starred Review
“Journeying through the past century of New York City’s ironworking trade, Rasenberger recounts signal events in its labor history while developing a powerful impression of its unique occupational culture. The latter he absorbed from close ground- and sky-level observation of ironworkers at two mid-Manhattan construction sites, and at the World Trade Center site. Raising steel for bridges and skyscrapers is extraordinarily hazardous. Several of the workers profiled sustained severe and, in one instance, permanently disabling injuries–painfully proving ironwork’s annual 5 percent death-and-injury rate. Why any man would court its dangers is a tantalizing question to which Rasenberger advances a multitude of answers. One is generational continuity, which Rasenberger discerned from his trips to the homes of Mohawk Indians and Newfoundlanders who’ve worked in the trade for decades. Another is the autonomy on the job that ironworkers enjoy, and the pride they derive from being the first colonists of a square of air. With ironworkers’ social prestige elevated in the aftermath of the WTC calamity, Rasenberger’s muscular portrait deserves an outsize audience as well.” –Booklist