During the early era of skyscraper construction, it was said that one worker died for every $1million spent on the building
- 5 men died during the 1929 to 1931 construction of the Empire State Building
- 27 workers died by the time the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883
During the incredible building boom of early 20th century, it was said that crew foremen could expect one man to die for every $1million spent on a skyscraper.
In these heady early years – when industry barons raced each other to see who could get their towers built first – workers had few protections. They wore no hard hats or safety ropes.
But even inches from peril, some men managed to laugh in the face of death. These incredible pictures show construction workers goofing off as they built some of America’s most iconic skyscrapers.
The most famous of these, of course, is Charles C. Ebbets infamous shot ‘Lunch atop a Skyscraper,’ snapped in 1932 of 11 workers having lunch on an exposed steel beam 840 feet above the ground.
However Ebbets also snapped a worker practicing his golf swing on the same 70-story construction site – the RCA Building, now knows as the GE Building or 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
A 1930 photograph reveals that the Waldorf Astoria began offering its legendary first-class service well before it even opened. Two bow tie and jacket-clad waiters are pictured serving a gourmet lunch to a pair of workers on a girder high above Park Avenue.
Another photo, from 1925 shows a blindfolded worker walking between two girders 20 stories above the street.
One photo shows a workers climbing up a wrecking ball while working on the Empire State Building in 1930.
The stunts are no laughing matter. Five men died in accidents during the breakneck construction of the Empire State Building. An estimated 27 workers perished during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, which was completed in 1883.
‘Building skyscrapers is the nearest peace-time equivalent of war. In fact, the analogy is startling, even to the occasional grim reality of a building accident where maimed bodies, and even death, remind us that we are fighting a war of construction against the forces of nature,’ work foreman William Starrette was quoted as saying.
A magazine reporter who wrote about the high-flying construction workers in 1908 – at the start of the skyscraper boom – dubbed the men ‘cowboys of the skies.’
Ernest Poole recalled several examples of men being killed while just going about their daily jobs – being blown off girders by high winds, losing their footing and slipping to their deaths, being smashed by steel as it was being hoisted hundreds of feet into place.
But he also documented stories of silly, risk-taking recklessness.
He described how a hapless foreman at the Singer Building – then the tallest structure in the world –
‘Time again on returning, he would find some delighted man monkey high up by the big brass ball taking a loot at the sea.’