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The Wall Street Journal.

Building Without a Net
April 15, 2004

By Julia Vitullo-Martin

Why do some societies flourish and others decay? There is no one answer, but it does seem as if societies that have prospered over the past two centuries -- not to mention the prosperous cities within them -- have had the cunning to profit from the opportunities thrown up first by the Industrial Revolution and then by the ever more astonishing revolutions in science and engineering that have followed.

The great 19th-century inventions -- suspension bridges, railroads, subways, skyscrapers -- redistributed wealth dramatically, bestowing it on those who grasped the consequences of technology's advance and stripping it from those who did not. Both Jim Rasenberger in "High Steel" (HarperCollins, 376 pages, $26.95) and Deborah Cadbury in "Dreams of Iron and Steel" (Fourth Estate, 300 pages, $25.95) tell the stories behind the modern achievements, revealing as much about the human spirit as about technological progress.

The site of an innovation is not necessarily its beneficiary. Chicago architects, for example, invented the skyscraper by borrowing the steel skeleton from railroad bridges and applying it to buildings -- eliminating the limits that masonry had imposed. With the 1883 construction of the 25-story Home Insurance Building, the first to use a steel skeleton, the Chicago school of architecture rose above all others. Only specialists, however, are likely to remember Chicago's brief dominance. For as Mr. Rasenberger notes, Chicago's politicians, believing that skyscrapers "were destroying their city," passed an ordinance in 1893 banning buildings more than 10 stories high.

The ordinance immediately shoved Chicago off its perch, for New York's politicians had come to the opposite conclusion the year before. The New Yorkers "jettisoned the city's more conservative zoning laws," writes Mr. Rasenberger, "and embraced the principle of metal frame construction." One can picture them licking their chops as rival cities -- Boston, Philadelphia, London, Paris -- followed Chicago's example and imposed height limits. With the skyscraper reaching toward the heavens, businesses could concentrate their functions and services in one place, transforming New York into the most powerful commercial center the world had ever known.

Builders knew where the action was at the end of the 19th century, writes Mr. Rasenberger, and arrived in New York in droves. Also arriving were the structural ironworkers -- the "men who risked the most and labored the hardest" to erect the towers and bridges that would indelibly characterize the city. These "cowboys of the skies," as the journalist Ernest Poole called them in 1908, captured Mr. Rasenberger's attention one day when he was on assignment to write about firefighters for the New York Times. His 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.

Many of the early ironworkers had been sailors -- Irish- and Scandinavian-Americans who were used to clambering up ships' masts. Mr. Rasenberger confirms the legend that many of the others were Mohawk Indians, who began working in New York around 1901. Ironically, they came in ever greater numbers after the terrible disintegration of the Quebec Bridge during its construction in 1907. Of the 75 men who died then, 33 were Mohawks. Yet in 1915, the American Board of Indian Commissioners reported that 587 out of 651 adult males living on the Kahnawake Reservation outside Montreal belonged to the structural steel union -- up from under 100 in 1907.

By the time Mr. Rasenberger has made it through the entire 20th century to get to the story of the building of the Time Warner Center in New York's Columbus Circle, he still encounters Mohawks -- and ponders why they do such dangerous work so far from home. High steel work pays well, of course. But more important, he believes, are the keys to happiness it provides, not least a rare feeling of autonomy. Until recently gangs of ironworkers functioned as self-determined units -- a libertarian's paradise.

Paradise may be ending. Government and insurance regulations have eaten away -- not entirely wrongly -- at the autonomy of ironworkers. Worse, steel faces serious competition from concrete, which is clunkier but far cheaper -- and less vulnerable to heat. While this prospect is sad for those who revere the high-steel skyscraper, it need not be the end of the story. History's ultimate lesson seems to be one of ingenuity confounding expectations and overcoming limits.

And indeed, in Ms. Cadbury's recounting of "seven wonders" of the 19th and early 20th centuries, we find obsessed visionaries engrossed in their own creations who see what others don't and drive their plans forward relentlessly. All her stories involve stupendous costs, and not just economic ones. She writes of the Great Eastern, for example, the largest ocean-going vessel of the mid-19th century, during whose construction gruesome, maiming accidents were "commonplace." (It was rumored, too, that a riveter and his boy were entombed accidentally in the hull.) The transcontinental railroad helped create one nation, undivided -- but cost the lives of "countless" Chinese workers, countless because they were regarded as so expendable that no records were kept. And then there was the Brooklyn Bridge, which created one city while killing many men, including its two brilliant engineers, father and son.

Each of these projects -- and others, like the Panama Canal and Hoover Dam -- made the world smaller, safer, far more efficient and far richer, the very conditions that caused the Trade Center to become a target for attack. Mr. Rasenberger tells of the men who left their paid jobs at Time Warner to clean up the wreckage of Ground Zero. "They needed ironworkers," said one. "Cutting steel. Moving steel. That's what we do everyday."

Ms. Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

©2004 Wall Street Journal

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