They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, but what about building the Empire State Building? This Art Deco marvel towering over midtown Manhattan, was the world’s tallest skyscraper for over 40 years and took over a year to build.
The only thing as impressive as the Empire State Building… are the men who built it. The Empire State Building was built by construction workers who toiled at heights of up to 1,440 feet above the city’s streets. No wonder they were known as “air-treaders,” or “sky boys.” Here’s what to know about the brave souls who built the Empire State Building!
At the peak of construction, there were 3,000 people working on the Empire State Building. Excavation for the Empire State Building began on January 22nd, 1930, less than three months after the Wall Street crash. Given the city’s financial straits, jobs on the project were coveted.
Most workers were eager European immigrant laborers. At the peak, there were about 3,000 men at work on the building—including carpenters, bricklayers, derrick men, elevator installers, electricians, plumbers, heating and ventilation men, trade inspectors, checkers, foremen, and clerks.
But it was the sky boys—the daredevil steel workers and riveters—who most inspired awe.
Who Are The Sky Boys?
The sky boys put on the best open-air show in town. The gravity-defying iron workers balanced on narrow beams or hung from derrick lines hundreds, and even thousands, of feet above the city’s streets.
The New York Times wrote that they “put on the best open-air show in town. They rode into the air on top of a steel beam that they maneuvered into place as a crosspiece by hanging to the cable rope and steering the beam with their feet, then strolling on the thin edge of nothingness.”
Along with the steelworkers were the intrepid teams of riveters, who drove red-hot rivets into the beams, fastening them into place to create the building’s steel skeleton.
Passersby stood three and four deep, taking deep breaths as they watched the steelworkers at their acrobatic work. London’s Daily Mail compared the workers to classical heroes: “They were right there, in the flesh, outwardly prosaic, incredibly nonchalant, crawling, climbing, walking, swinging, swooping on gigantic steel frames…[but seemed comfortable doing it].”
Despite the danger, the sky boys seemed cool and calm. “It isn’t really as dangerous as it looks,” claimed one of the workers. “It’s safer up here than it is down below,” he said, pointing to the chaotic streets.
Supporting the workers were the water boys, who carried water buckets to the thirsty construction workers and sometimes peddled cigarettes. Joe Carbonell, who was sixteen years old when he worked on the site, remembered, “It was kind of a thrill working on the beams. I learned, don’t look down, just look to the end of the beam.”
The one danger the workers heeded? The weather.
As fearless as the riveters and iron workers seemed, the weather seemed to be the only thing that made them fearful. When it rained, there was a danger of slipping; when it was bitterly cold, stiff or numb hands could not hold onto anything. These factors made building the Empire State Building dangerous, but didn’t prevent the sky boys from pushing onward.
Thanks to their hard work, the Empire State Building was built in record time, averaging four and a half stories a week. Structural steel work was completed twelve days ahead of schedule. The building was ready to open by April 1931, just 13 months after construction began.
Documenting Construction of The Empire Tower
Fortunately for all of us fun fact fanatics, the Empire State Corporation commissioned Lewis Wickes Hine to take photos of construction for use as advertising. Hine, a schoolteacher and self-taught photographer, took hundreds of photos over six months during the construction of the Empire State Building.
Hine photographed the workers in precarious positions, often taking the same risks as the workers. Hooked up to a safety line, he felt his way to the suspended ends of beams and girders to capture dramatic photos. To obtain a desired vantage point, Hine was swung out in a specially designed basket 1,000 feet above Fifth Avenue.
Hine called the workers, “men of courage, skill, daring, and imagination.” Regarding his photos, he recalled, “I wanted to show things that had to be appreciated.” Today, you can enjoy his works which are on display at the International Center of Photography in New York.
Remembering The Empire State Building Workers
The workers who built the Empire State Building are commemorated in its lobby. Decorating the marble walls are brass medallions, celebrating the various trades that contributed to the building. Beside the main reception desk hangs a plaque, honoring some of the talented craftsmen who built the remarkable landmark.
Hungry for more? Come along on our Fully Guided Statue of Liberty Tour with Ellis Island to learn more about New York’s other famous monuments. We’ll bring to life stories about Lady Liberty and the immigrants who ventured through New York’s harbor. Join us!