Up each of these bare, grim steel beams sticking into the sky, shinnies a girder.

By Gregory Clark, September 8, 1928.

Human Spiders Who Weave Steel Webs in Clouds Are Inoculated to Height.

“What are you doin’ with your good pants on?”

The boss of the steel men stares curiously at the young man who has just come into the shanty.

“I’m quittin’ the job.”

The young man in the good pants looks straight at the boss. Above the shanty looms the colossal structure of the new Royal York. The air is filled with the shouting of the crane’s engine, the far tattoo of rivetters, the warlike sounds of steel going up.

“What you quitting for?”

“I lost me balance,” says the young fellow in the good pants. “I need a little rest up.”

“Get your pay Saturday,” says the boss. “Fired, you get paid right now. Quitting, you get paid Saturday with the rest.”

“See you later,” says the young man, walking out.

This young chap was a climber. A bridgeman. A steel worker.

One of his jobs, besides carrying planks, is to walk three inch beams in a gale of wind three hundred feet above the earth, with the earth glaring up at him beneath his feet and nothing between.

We’ll say they have got the sixteenth storey of spidery steel up. The cross pieces all laid. Then they set up the uprights for the seventeenth storey. Dozens of steel beams sticking up into the sky.

How do they get the beams of the seventeenth laid across those uprights?

With the derrick, you say.

Sure, with the derrick. The derrick hoists the giant steel beam up into the sky and lowers it slowly gingerly.

But who is there to take hold of it, to guide it to fit snugly on the bleak tops sticking up? Who Is there to pin it into place ready for the rivetters?

Why, a couple of climbers.

Up each of those bare, grim steel beams sticking into the sky shinnies a climber. He takes hold of the upright with his arms and his legs and climbs it to the top. There he clings, a hundred, two hundred feet in the sky, with the wind blowing and the earth far below sort of holding out its broad arms, and there he clings while the derrick men, with much waving of gauntleted arms, ease the vast swinging beam down, down, an inch at a time, until the climber can guide it to its pocket, slip in the pins, and then slide down to what he thinks is terra firma again.

One Mistake is Too Many

Thousands, tens of thousands of Toronto people have been watching the bridgemen on Toronto’s great new skyscrapers the last few months. Every once in a while the crowd standing back and staring skyward seemed to be thicker than usual. That was when a climber was shinning up a beam to make a joint. That was when the supreme stunt of the steel worker’s life was being enacted. Maybe you were not lucky enough to see it.

What does it feel like to be perched on the tip of one of those uprights waiting while an unseen derrick guides a couple of tons of steel towards you through the sky?

“It feels all right,” says the climbers, one and all. They are alert, nervous men – not stolid as we had expected.

“But how about nerves?”


“How about being afraid of falling?”

“How can you fall when you’re hanging on?”

“But you might slip.”

“Sure. We might git hit with lightning.”

And they look at each other with that puzzled look that men exchange when they are tied up in conversation with somebody who doesn’t understand the a, b, c of things.

For Hughie McGovern, the superintendent of the steel men for the Dominion Bridge Company, who put up the bones of The Star building and the Royal York, assures us that there is nothing to climbing.

“You see,” he says, “in steel work you start at the ground. No, below the ground. With the foundations. Then you go up one storey. Then two. Then three. And so on, day by day, week by week, doing the same things forty feet below ground, forty feet above ground, and so on up. And you get used to going up gradually. If you went up that way you wouldn’t mind being up a couple of hundred feet. It’s because you are down here on the flat all the time that you feel giddy up high.”

And he is right. Those human spiders climbing about their steel web in the sky are inoculated to height. The runner does a hundred yards to begin with. Then stretches out. The soldier is put under fire little by little until he can stand a pandemonium. The climber goes up a beam at a time and as forty feet does not seem much higher than thirty feet, so hundred and ninety feet is not much different from two hundred feet.

Yet, as a rule, these climbers only make one mistake. And one is too many.

The lad in the good pants who said he lost his balance and thought he would take a rest gave us a hint of what four hundred deaths per year amongst steel workers in America means. He merely staggered for an instant. Luck was with him. He caught his balance and did not take the plunge. But he quit the job for a while, maybe forever. Because in most ventures in this life you can make more than one mistake. You can make many mistakes. But the steel worker can only make one.

“It still is a venturesome career,” said the junior Mr. Evans of the Dominion Bridge Co. “But safety laws and insurance company interests have done a great deal to take out the old daring. For example, in the Royal York job we are using ten thousand dollars’ worth of planks alone. Fifteen car loads of heavy planks. As one floor goes up we follow with the planks, making a floor right underneath the up-going steel. In fact, you will hear real bridgemen, the elite of steel men, complaining bitterly about raising a little steel and then spending a whole day hauling planks. But if a man falls off the steel nowadays he only falls a few feet to the planks below.”

And a foreman who permits his men to take chances, to ride the beams as they swing through space on the derrick, or to engage in any of the short cuts is soon in trouble. For the insurance companies keep their eyes on steel work, not to mention the management of the companies who have to pay their dues to the workmen’s compensation funds.

The way the workers get to the top of these tall structures is not by elevator, but by leg-work. They go up the ladders that roughly connect one floor to the other. You climb twenty ladders to get to your work and you would be ready to quit. That is how steel workers get to their jobs in the morning. They go up, a long monkey chain of them, ladder after ladder – ladders made of a bit of scantling with cross pieces made of any old waste bits –

And there is no planking except on the second to last floor! Is it any wonder that when necessity brings a steel worker down to earth during the day he wants to ride up again on a derrick load of beams? Or on the “ball.” The ball is the large iron counterbalance that comes down when a load goes up and goes up when the line comes down. A good man can stand on it and get a free ride to the top when nobody is looking.

Yet all the planks in the world do not cut much ice when the upright beams that have to be shinned are the corner beams, hanging sheer hundreds of feet straight above the world.

“How does it feel, really, when you find yourself clinging with arms and legs to the top of a beam on the corner, say, twenty storeys up?”

“It feels just the same as when you are clinging to a beam thirty feet up. You got a good hold. That’s all there is.”

“Yes. But you’ve got to use at least one hand to guide the cross beam that’s coming in and pin it.”

“One hand. You can use two hands. Haven’t you got your legs wound round?”

“And a – a wind blowing?” we asked.

“Wind swings the beam on the derrick, maybe. But it don’t bother us.”

“Doesn’t it feel queer to look down?”

“It would to you. But not to us. We’re used to it. It would feel mighty queer to us if the boss said go and git a story for The Star Weekly.”

Indians Make Good Climbers

The Dominion Bridge crews are made up of British-Canadians, Indians, French-Canadians, Americans and various nationalities from all the world. Bridgemen come in all varieties.

“What’s the good point about Indians?” we asked Hughie McGovern, the boss.

“They make great climbers and rivetters. The Caughnawaga Indian reserve is just across the river from the company’s main plant at Lachine. The young fellows come and get jobs with us when they are sixteen, seventeen. They start early. That’s the secret of good steel workers. A man of forty never got into the steel game. Indians are a quiet and easy-going race. They don’t get worried or excited. That makes them good at steel.”

“What is the biggest hazard in steel work? What is it the boys talk about around their lunch? Is it fear of falling?”

“No,” said Mr. McGovern. “As long as it’s solid the boys don’t care if it is three inches or six they’ve got their feet on. The big fear in this business is that something will fall.”

“On them?”

“No. You see, everything they work with is heavy. Tons of steel. Well, if you have a ten ton crane lifting a fifteen ton piece something might give. If everything is bolted up tight and the crane is lifting something well within its capacity and radius there is nothing to worry about. The fear that disturbs a steel worker is that something is going to give way or fall or slip. As long as everything is solid they don’t worry. They’ve got their feet and their hands and they know they can trust them.”

But when something does go wrong there are lot of small cars headed somewhere the next day.

For example, when anybody does all of the steel work everybody quits for that day. The whole job goes into a curious kind of industrial mourning.

The steel workers are nomads. They go where the steel is. A big company like the Dominion Bridge that has series of jobs laid out from end to end of the country keeps its crews together in almost army style. But they mooch along from job to job on their own, and in their own cars. Sometimes with the family aboard.

“Married men make good steel workers. They’re more careful.”

But there is a good deal of superstition and understanding in the game. If a man quits because he thinks the job is jonahed or has a jinx on it the foreman is not going to be nasty about it the next time that man comes for a job on another location. Every man is allowed his opinions as to jinx.

“Do many men quit as the result of nerves?”

“Yes, there is a regular proportion who quit,” said Mr. McGovern. “We don’t always know the reason or inquire it. A fellow makes a slip or comes near falling and he is entitled to quit. In fact, we don’t want nervous men on the job. They not only can’t perform their own jobs, but they make others nervous, too. So when a man quits he knows best.”

Have Faith in Their Feet

The seeing of an accident is one of the best reasons for a man quitting. If a man falls there are usually a few witnesses, and whether they lose their own nerve or whether they really believe in jinx they take it as their right to quit if they feel like it. But the majority of climbers are cool-headed fellows with supreme confidence in their own plain ability to look after themselves, and they carry on the next day, walking their beams, climbing their spidery minarets, as confidently as ever.

Nowadays falls do not always spell the end. A fall of ten or fifteen feet to the planks that are following faithfully below means a broken leg or arm more often than a broken neck.

“And they get pretty good at catching hold of things as they fall,” said Mr. McGovern. “There are lots of close shaves, when man slips and catches hold of the beam and hauls himself back on.”

And does that man quit? No. His hardest lot is to bear the kidding of his friends up aloft. They want to know if he is getting old. Or drinking too much, or the wrong kind. They suggest he change the brand.

A few brief conversations with climbers as they file past the pay office wicket, a little self-conscious at being asked absurd questions:

“Did you ever come near a fall?”

“Sure,” says an Indian. “Yesterday. I slip on a banana peeling on King St.”

And a big laugh at the expense of the press.

“Sure, I’ve fell,” says an Irish lad. “But I hit on some loose planks and only broke some ribs.”

Another said he had teetered once up a hundred feet on a bridge, teetered and swayed, with his arms waving to recover his balance, and for several seconds, he doesn’t know how long, he faced death on rocks far, far beneath. Then he recovered his balance and sat down. He wondered if he would ever be able to stand up on a three-inch beam again. Even to get back to solid structure so as to make the earth at last. But the foreman yelled at him and he got up and walked ahead with his job and it has never bothered him again.

“Beams ain’t slippery,” he said. “And once you know your feet they ain’t going to play tricks with you. So you’re all right, ain’t you?”

The worst that most of them had to say was that in their careers, a derrick had given way, or a piece of steel scraped some skin off them.

“But those were in the little hay-wire outfits, not the big companies.”

The little hay-wire outfits are the small companies that have not got the equipment to handle big stuff. And no steel man wants to have anything to do with hay-wire.

So when you stand on solid pavement and watch these men moving quietly and confidently about on remote and tapered structures in the sky you need not try to imagine they are in fear of their own hands or feet betraying them, but that the steel itself or the slow swinging cranes will do the falling.

Editor’s Notes: The Royal York Hotel in Toronto was completed in 1929 and is 28 storeys tall.

“Jonahed” refers to Jonah in the Bible. It also means jinxed.