06/30/2013 08:00 EDT | Updated 08/30/2013 05:12 EDT

After more than a century of scaling heights, Quebec Mohawks cap tallest NYC building yet

MONTREAL - Generations of toil at dizzying heights have culminated in this towering achievement.

Ironworkers from a Mohawk community were part of the team that installed the final section of spire at the top of the new One World Trade Center in New York last month.

John McGowan was one of those involved as he and colleagues wrote a special page in a history filled with high-level triumph, and also with tragedy.

"It was a clear nice day. It couldn't have been a nicer day," said the 48-year-old resident of Kahnawake, Que., near Montreal.

He is a third-generation ironworker.

His father and grandfather worked on the original World Trade Center. When the twin towers were destroyed in 2001, he helped with the cleanup. And four years ago he started working on One World Trade Center, the 1,776-foot culmination of a 31-year career as an ironworker.

"It's the highest building we put up," he said.

"It's the tallest building in the northern hemisphere."

Michael Ahrihron Delisle Jr., the Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, expressed his pride in an interview.

"It's extremely significant for our community," he said.

"Our people, our fathers, uncles, brothers and so on worked on the original Trade Center and their sons, grandsons, nephews and so on went in for 9-11... to help and to clean up and (attempt to) rescue."

Indeed, Mohawk from Kahnawake have been ironworkers for more than a century.

Pierre Trudel is an anthropologist teaching at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal, and writes for the magazine Recherches Amerindiennes au Quebec (Amerindian studies in Quebec).

He says Kahnawake Mohawks became ironworkers in 1886 when the Dominion Bridge Co. began building a bridge across the St. Lawrence River separating Montreal and their community.

In exchange for the use of Kahnawake's land, the company offered jobs.

But the employer quickly noticed that the Mohawks were particularly interested in working at heights. The higher-altitude jobs were more dangerous — and better paid.

Mohawk workers were also said to exhibit less fear.

"Our men just had a natural affinity to work and be on the steel super structure. It was recognized by the Dominion Bridge Co.," Grand Chief Delisle said.

"That's where our modest history started."

Joseph Mitchell prefaced the 1949 book "Apologies to the Iroquois" with his study of the Mohawks working on high steel.

He quotes an official of the Dominion Bridge Co. describing the toughness of Mohawks workers.

"They would climb up into the spans and walk around up there as cool and collected as the toughest of our riveters," the official wrote.

"They seemed immune to the noise of the riveting, which goes right through you and is often enough in itself to make newcomers to construction feel sick and dizzy."

Mohawks eventually formed riveting gangs and each one trained an apprentice until a new group was created.

The work has seen its share of tragedy.

When the Quebec Bridge collapsed in 1907, near Quebec City, 96 workers died.

Thirty-five of the dead were Mohawks from Kahnawake.

"Their graves are marked with lengths of steel girders made into crosses," Mitchell wrote.

That accident did not dissuade others from taking up the trade. On the contrary, more and more Mohawks joined the riveting gangs.

"They have been attracted by the danger and the prestige associated with such a job," Trudel said.

But, after the 1907 disaster, women in the community asked the men to split into smaller teams and work on different sites.

They didn't want all of them on the same bridge anymore.

That's when they started working on skyscrapers.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Mohawks crossed the border to work in the United States and especially in New York, attracted by the building boom there.

Mitchell wrote that Kahnawake gangs worked on the George Washington Bridge, the Empire State Building, the Daily News Building, the Bank of the Manhattan Company Building and the Hudson Bridge.

Over the past 20 years, women from Kahnawake have begun joining the riveting gangs.

There are still up to 200 people from Kahnawake who travel to New York each week.

"It's still a major part of Kahnawake economy, maybe not as big as in the past 100 years or so but there are still many families, many men, that travel every week and contribute to not only this economy but also the economy of New York," Grand Chief Delisle said.

"They are missed as part of the family here in the community but they always come home."

McGowan travels to New York every week, back and forth.

Sometimes he stays to work on the weekend, too.

"It's hard to be away from the family. You look forward to Friday when you go home," he said.

Ironworkers don't bring their family to Brooklyn anymore, he said, explaining that the highway to New York is good so it's possible to go back home for the weekend.

Trudel reaches far back into history to find parallels for the Mohawks' skyscraper work.

He compared today's jobs to the centuries-old fur trade, when small teams of men canoed over vast distances to tackle difficult jobs.

"They follow the same pattern," Trudel said.

Immigration to the United States is easier for Mohawks.

The Jay Treaty signed in 1794 between Great Britain and the United States provided special rights to American Indians. That treaty has been codified by the United States in the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Aboriginal people born in Canada are entitled to enter the United States for the purpose of employment, study, retirement, investing, and immigration, according to the U.S. embassy in Ottawa.

"We have no problem crossing the border," McGowan said.

The Mohawks of Kahnawake in fact also point to their origins in villages of what is now western and northern New York. French Jesuit missionaries persuaded them to go up to Quebec in the latter half of the 17th century, Mitchell wrote.

"We are not citizens of Canada or citizens of the United States. They recognize to some degree the issue of dual citizenship. So we never had to apply for a green card or resident status to be able to work near and around New York City," Grand Chief Delisle said.

Today's community members can still look to, and find use, in the achievements of generations past. A number of the creations were built to last.

Even that bridge where the history of ironworking began in 1886, the St. Lawrence Bridge near Kahnawake, is still used by the Canadian Pacific Railway.