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Primary Sources: Joseph Mitchell on Skyscrapers and Oysters
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Joseph Mitchell arrived in New York City from a small North Carolina farming town on the day after the great stock market crash in 1929. Just 21, he found work as a crime reporter, and subsequently worked as a reporter and feature writer for The World, The Herald Tribune and The World-Telegram. In 1938 Mitchell started writing full time for The New Yorker. He remained on staff there for nearly sixty years, writing acknowledged masterpieces on New York and its inhabitants.

Read excerpts from two of his stories, describing Native American skyscraper builders and oystering in New York Harbor.

From "The Mohawks in High Steel" (1949)

...In the early years at Caughnawaga, the men clung to their old, aboriginal Iroquois ways of making a living. The Jesuits tried to get them to become farmers, but they would not. In the summer, while the women farmed, they fished. In the fall and winter, they hunted in a body in woods all over Quebec, returning to the village now and then with canoeloads of smoked deer meat, moose meat, and bear meat. Then, around 1700, a few of the youths of the first generation born at Caughnawaga went down to Montreal and took jobs in the French fur trade. They became canoemen in the great fleets of canoes that carried trading goods to remote depots on the St. Lawrence and its tributaries and brought back bales of furs. They liked this work -- it was hard but hazardous -- and they recruited others. Thereafter, for almost a century and a half, practically every youth in the band took a job in a freight canoe as soon as he got his strength, usually around the age of seventeen. In the eighteen-thirties, forties, and fifties, as the fur trade declined in Lower Canada, the Caughnawaga men were forced to find other things to do. Some switched to the St. Lawrence timber-rafting industry and became famous on the river for their skill in running immense rafts of oak and pine over Lachine Rapids. Some broke down and became farmers. Some made moccasins and snowshoes and sold them to jobbers in Montreal. A few who were still good at the old Mohawk dances came down to the United States and traveled with circuses; Caughnawagas were among the first circus Indians. A few bought horses and buggies and went from farmhouse to farmhouse in New England in the summer, peddling medicines -- tonics, purges, liniments, and remedies for female ills -- that the old women brewed from herbs and roots and seeds. A good many became depressed and shiftless; these hung out in Montreal and did odd jobs and drank cheap brandy.

In 1886, the life at Caughnawaga changed abruptly. In the spring of that year, the Dominion Bridge Company began the construction of a cantilever railroad bridge across the St. Lawrence for the Canadian Pacific Railroad, crossing from the French-Canadian village of Lachine on the north shore to a point just below Caughnawaga village on the south shore. The D.B.C. is the biggest erector of iron and steel structures in Canada; it corresponds to the Bethlehem Steel Company in the United States. In obtaining the right to use reservation land for the bridge abutment, the Canadian Pacific and the D.B.C. promised the Caughnawagas would be employed on the job wherever possible.

"The records of the company for this bridge show that it was our understanding that we would employ these Indians as ordinary day laborers unloading materials," an official of the D.B.C. wrote recently in a letter. "They were dissatisfied with this arrangement and would come out on the bridge itself every chance they got. It was quite impossible to keep them off. As the work progressed, it became apparent to all concerned that these Indians were very odd in that they did not have any fear of heights. If not watched, they would climb up into the spans and walk around there as cool and collected as the toughest of our riveters, most of whom at that period were old sailing-ship men especially picked for their experience in working aloft. These Indians were as agile as goats. They would walk a narrow beam high up in the air with nothing below them but the river, which is rough there and ugly to look down on, and it wouldn't mean any more to them than walking on solid ground. 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. They were inquisitive about the riveting and were continually bothering our foremen by requesting that they be allowed to take a crack at it. This happens to be the most dangerous work in all construction, and the highest-paid. Men who want to do it are rare and men who can do it are even rarer, and in good construction years there are sometimes not enough of them to go around. We decided it would be mutually advantageous to see what these Indians could do, so we picked out some and gave them a little training, and it turned out that putting riveting tools in their hands was like putting ham with eggs. In other words, they were natural-born bridgemen. Our records do not show how many we trained on this bridge. There is a tradition in the company that we trained twelve, or enough to form three riveting gangs."

In the erection of steel structures, whether bridge or building, there are three main divisions of workers -- raising gangs, fitting-up gangs, and riveting gangs. The steel comes to a job already cut and built up in to various kinds of columns and beams and girders; the columns are the perpendicular pieces and the beams and girders are the horizontal ones. Each piece has two or more groups of holes bored though it to receive bolts and rivets, and each piece has a code mark chalked or painted on it, indicating where it should go in the structure. Using a crane or a derrick, the men in the raising gang hoist the pieces up and set them in position and join them by running bolts through a few of the holes in them; these bolts are temporary. Then the men in the fitting-up gang come along; they are divided into plumbers and bolters. The plumbers tighten up the pieces with guy wires and turnbuckles and make sure that they are in plumb. The bolters put in some more temporary bolts. Then the riveting gangs come along; one raising gang and one fitting-up gang will keep several riveting gangs busy. There are four men in a riveting gang -- a heater, a sticker-in, a bucker-up and a riveter. The heater lays some wooden planks across a couple of beams, making a platform for the portable, coal-burning forge in which he heats the rivets. The three other men hang a plank scaffold by ropes from the steel on which they are going to work. There are usually six two-by-ten planks on a scaffold, three on each side of the steel, affording just room enough to work; one false step and it's goodbye Charlie. The three men climb down with their tools and take their positions on the scaffold; most often the sticker-in and the bucker-up stand on one side, and the riveter stands or kneels on the other. The heater, on his platform, picks a red-hot rivet off the coals in his forge with tongs and tosses it to the sticker-in, who catches it in a metal can. At this stage the rivet is shaped like a mushroom; it has a buttonhead and a stem. Meanwhile, the bucker-up has unscrewed and pulled out one of the temporary bolts jointing two pieces of steel, leaving the hole empty. The sticker-in picks the rivet out of his can with tongs and sticks it in the hole and pushes it in until the buttonhead is flush with the steel on his side and the stem protrudes from the other side, the riveter's side. The sticker-in steps out of the way. The bucker-up fits a tool called a dolly bar over the buttonhead and holds it there, bracing the rivet. Then the riveter presses the cupped head of his pneumatic hammer against the protruding stem end of the rivet, which is still red-hot and malleable, and turns on the power and forms a buttonhead on it. This operation is repeated until every hole that can be got at from the scaffold is riveted up. Then the scaffold is moved. The heater's platform stays in one place until all the work within a rivet-tossing radius of thirty to forty feet is completed. The men on the scaffold know each other's jobs and are interchangeable; the riveter's job is bone-shaking and nerve-racking, and every so often one of the others swaps with him for a while. In the days before pneumatic hammers, the riveter used two tools, a cupped die and an iron maul; he placed the die over the stem end of the red-hot rivet and beat on it with the maul until he squashed the stem end into a buttonhead.

After the D.B.C. completed the Canadian Pacific Bridge, it began work on a jackknife bridge now known as the Soo Bridge, which crosses two canals and a river and connects the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. This job took two years. Old Mr. Jacobs, the patriarch of the band, says that the Caughnawaga riveting gangs went straight from the Canadian Pacific job to the Soo job and that each gang took along an apprentice. Mr. Jacobs is in his eighties. In his youth, he was a member of a riveting gang; in his middle age, he was, successively, a commercial traveler for a wholesale grocer in Montreal, a schoolteacher on the reservation, and a campaigner for compulsory education for Indians. "The Indian boys turned the Soo Bridge into a college for themselves," he says. "The way they worked it, as soon as one apprentice was trained, they'd send back to the reservation for another one. By and by, there'd be enough men for a new Indian gang. When the new gang was organized, there'd be a shuffle-up -- a couple of men from the old gangs would go into the new gang and a couple of the new men would go into the old gangs; the old would balance the new." This proliferation continued on subsequent jobs, and by 1907 there were over seventy skilled bridgemen in the Caughnawaga band. On August 29, 1907 during the erection of the Quebec Bridge, which crosses the St. Lawrence nine miles above Quebec City, a span collapsed, killing ninety-six men, of whom thirty-five were Caughnawagas. In the band, this is always spoken of as "the disaster."

"People thought the disaster would scare the Indians away from high steel for good," Mr. Jacobs says. "Instead of which, the general effect it had, it made high steel much more interesting to them. It made them take pride in themselves that they could do such dangerous work. Up to then, the majority of them, they didn't consider it any more dangerous than timber-rafting. Also it made them the most looked-up-to men on the reservation. The little boys in Caughnawaga used to look up to the men that went out with circuses in the summer and danced and war-whooped all over the States and came back to the reservation in the winter and holed up and sat by the stove and drank whiskey and bragged. Thatıs what they wanted to do. Either that, or work on the timber rafts. After the disaster, they changed their minds -- they all wanted to go into high steel. The disaster was a terrible blow to the women. The first thing they did, they got together a sum of money for a life-size crucifix to hang over the main altar in St. Francis Xavier's. They did that to show their Christian resignation. The next thing they did, they got in behind the men and made them split up and scatter out. That is, they wouldn't allow all the gangs to work together on one bridge any more, which, if something went wrong, it might widow half the young women on the reservation. A few gangs would go to this bridge and a few would go to that. Pretty soon, there werenıt enough bridge jobs, and the gangs began working on all types of high steel -- factories, office buildings, department stores, hospitals, hotels, apartment houses, schools, breweries, distilleries, powerhouses, piers, railroad stations, grain elevators, anything and everything. In a few years, every steel structure of any size that went up in Canada, there were Indians on it. Then Canada got too small and they began crossing the border. They began going down to Buffalo and Cleveland and Detroit."

Sometime in 1915 or 1916, a Caughnawaga bridgeman named John Diabo came down to New York City and got a job on Hell Gate Bridge. He was a curiosity and was called Indian Joe; two old foremen still remember him. After he had worked for some months as a bucker-up in an Irish gang, three other Caughnawagas joined him and they formed a gang of their own. They had worked together only a few weeks when Diabo stepped off a scaffold and dropped into the river and was drowned. He was highly skilled and his misstep was freakish; recently, in trying to explain it, a Caughnawaga said, "It must've been one of those cases, he got in the way of himself." The other Caughnawagas went back to the reservation with his body and did not return. As well as the old men in the band can recollect, no other Caughnawagas worked here until the twenties. In 1926, attracted by the building boom, three or four Caughnawaga gangs came down. The old men say that these gangs worked first on the Fred F. French building, the Graybar Building, and One Fifth Avenue. In 1928, three more gangs came down. They worked first on the George Washington Bridge. In the thirties, when Rockefeller Center was the biggest steel job in the country, at least seven additional Caughnawaga gangs came down. Upon arriving here, the men in all these gangs enrolled in the Brooklyn local of the high-steel union, the International Association of Bridge, Structural, and Ornamental Iron Workers, American Federation of Labor. Why they enrolled in the Brooklyn instead of the Manhattan local, no one now seems able to remember. The hall of the Brooklyn local is on Atlantic Avenue, in the block between Times Plaza and Third Avenue, and the Caughnawagas got lodgings in furnished-room houses and cheap hotels in the North Gowanus neighborhood, a couple of blocks up Atlantic from the hall. In the early thirties, they began sending for their families and moving into tenements and apartment houses in the same neighborhood. During the war, Caughnawagas continued to come down. Many of these enrolled in the Manhattan local, but all of them settled in North Gowanus.

At present, there are eighty-three Caughnawagas in the Brooklyn local and forty-two in the Manhattan local. Less them a third of them work steadily in the city. The other keep their families in North Gowanus and work here intermittently but spend much of their time in other cities. They roam from coast to coast, usually by automobile, seeking rush jobs that offer unlimited overtime work at double pay; in New York City, the steel-erecting companies use as little overtime as possible. A gang may work in half a dozen widely separated cities in a single year. Occasionally, between jobs, they return to Brooklyn to seen their families. Now and then, after long jobs, they pick up their families and go up to the reservation for a vacation; some go up every summer. A few men sometimes take their families along on trips to jobs and send them back to Brooklyn by bus or train. Several foremen who have had years of experience with Caughnawagas believe that they roam because they can't help doing so, it is a passion, and that their search for overtime is only an excuse. A veteran foreman for the American Bridge Company says he has seen Caughnawagas leave jobs that offered all the overtime they could handle. When they are making up their minds to move on, he says, they become erratic. "Everything will be going along fine on a job," he says. "Good working conditions. Plenty of overtime. A nice city. Then the news will come over the grapevine about some big new job opening up somewhere; it might be a thousand miles away. That kind of news always causes a lot of talk, what we call water-bucket talk, but the Indians don't talk; they know what's in each other's mind. For a couple of days, they're tensed up and edgy. They look a little wild in the eyes. They've heard the call. Then, all of a sudden, they turn in their tools, and they're gone. Can't wait another minutes. They'll quit at lunchtime, in the middle of the week. They won't even wait for their pay. Some other gang will collect their money and hold it until a postcard comes back telling where to send it." George C. Lane, manager of erections in the New York district for the Bethlehem Steel Company, once said that the movements of a Caughnawaga gang are as impossible to foresee as the movements of a flock of sparrows. "In the summer of 1936," Mr. Lane said, "we finished a job here in the city and the very next day we were starting in on a job exactly three blocks away. I heard one of our foremen trying his best to persuade an Indian gang to go on the new job. They had got word about a job in Hartford and wanted to go up there. The foreman told them the rate of pay was the same; there wouldn't be any more overtime up there than here; their families were here; they'd have traveling expenses; they'd have to root around Hartford for lodgings. Oh, no; it was Hartford or nothing. A year or so later I ran into this gang on a job in Newark, and I asked the heater how they made out in Hartford that time. He said they didn't go to Hartford. 'We went to San Francisco, California.' He said. 'We went out and worked on the Golden Gate Bridge.' "

In New York City, the Caughnawagas work mostly for the big companies -- Bethlehem, American Bridge, the Lehigh Structural Steel Company, and the Harris Structural Steel Company. Among the structures in and around the city on which they worked in numbers are the R.C.A. Building, the Cities Service Building, the Empire State Building, the Daily News Building, the Chanin Building, the Bank of the Manhattan Company Building, the City Bank Farmers Trust Building, the George Washington Bridge, the Bayonne Bridge, the Passaic River Bridge, the Triborough Bridge, the Henry Hudson Bridge, the Little Hell Gate Bridge, the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, the Marine Parkway Bridge, the Pulaski Skyway, the West Side Highway, the Waldorf-Astoria, London Terrace, and Knickerbocker Village....

Excerpt from "The Mohawks in High Steel," reprinted in Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories (Vintage Books, 1992), pp. 267-290.

From "The Bottom of the Harbor" (1951)

...In Dutch and English days, immense beds of oysters grew in the harbor. They bordered the shores of Brooklyn and Queens, and they encircled Manhattan, Staten Island, and the islands in the Upper Bay; to the Dutch, Ellis Island was Oyster Island and Bedloe's Island was Great Oyster Island. One chain of beds extended from Sandy Hook straight across the harbor and up the Hudson to Ossining. The Dutch and the English were, as they still are, gluttonous oyster eaters. By the end of the eighteenth century, all but the deepest of the beds had been stripped. Oysters, until then among the cheapest of foods, gradually became expensive. In the eighteen-twenties, a group of Staten Island shipowners began to buy immature oysters by the schooner-load in other localities and bring them to New York and bed them in the harbor until they got their growth, when they were tonged up and shipped to the wholesale oyster market in Manhattan, to cities in the Middle West, and to London, where they were prized. This business was known as bedding. The bedders obtained most of their seed stock in the Chesapeake Bay and in several New Jersey and Long Island bays. Some bought three-year-olds and put them down for only six or seven months, and some bought younger oysters and put them down for longer periods. At first, the bedders used the shoals in the Kill van Kull, but by and by they found that the best bottoms lay along the seaward side of Staten Island, in the Lower Bay and Raritan Bay. Back then, the inshore water in these bays was rich in diatoms and protozoa, the tiny plants and animals on which oysters feed. Spread out in this water, on clean bottoms, at depths averaging around thirteen feet, oysters matured and fattened much faster than they did crowded together on their shell-cluttered spawning grounds; a thousand bushels of three-year-olds from Chesapeake Bay, put down in April in a favorable season, might amount to fourteen hundred bushels when taken up in October. Bedding was highly profitable in good years and many fortunes were made in it. It was dominated by old-settler Staten Island families -- the Tottens, the Winants, the De Harts, the Deckers, the Manees, the Merseraus, the Van Wyks, the Van Duzers, the Latourettes, the Housmans, the Bedells and the Depews. It lasted almost for a century, during which, at one time or another, five Staten Island ports -- Mariner's Harbor, Port Richmond, Great Kills, Prince's Bay and Tottenville -- had oyster docks and fleets of schooners, sloops and tonging skiffs. Prince's Bay had the biggest fleet and longest period of prosperity; on menus in New York and London, harbor oysters were often called Prince's Bays. Approximately nine thousand acres of harbor bottom, split up into plots varying from a fraction of an acre to four hundred acres, were used for beds. The plots were leased from the state and were staked with a forest of hemlock poles; nowadays, in deepening and widening Ambrose Channel, Chapel Hill Channel, Swash Channel, and other ship channels in the Lower Bay, dredges occasionally dig up the tube-worm-incrusted stumps of old boundary poles. Bedding was most prosperous in the thirty years between 1860 and 1890. In good years in that period, as many as fifteen hundred men were employees on the beds and as many as five hundred thousand bushels of oysters were marketed. Some years, as much as a third of the crop was shipped to Billingsgate, the London fish market. For a while, the principal bedders were the richest men on Staten Island. They put their money in waterfront real estate, they named streets after themselves, and they built big, showy wooden mansions. A half dozen of these mansions still stand in a blighted neighborhood in Mariner's Harbor, in among refineries and coal tipples and junk yards. One has a widow's walk, two have tall fluted columns, all have oddly shaped gables, and all are decorated with scroll-saw work. They overlook one of the oiliest and gummiest stretches of the Kill van Kull. On the south shore, in the sassafras barrens west of Prince's Bay, there are three more of these mansions, all empty. Their fanlights are broken, their shutters swag, and their yards are a tangle of weeds and vines and overturned birdbaths and dead pear trees.

After 1900, as more and more of the harbor became polluted, people began to grow suspicious of harbor oysters, and the bedding business declined. In the summer of 1916, a number of cases of typhoid fever were traced beyond all doubt to the eating of oysters that had been bedded on West Bank Shoal, in the Lower Bay, and it was found that sewage from a huge New Jersey trunk sewer whose outfall is at the confluence of the Kill van Kull and the Upper Bay was being swept through the Narrows and over all the beds by the tides. The Department of Health thereupon condemned the beds and banned the business. The bedders were allowed to take up the oysters they had down and rebed them in clean water in various Long Island bays. They didn't get them all, of course. A few were missed and now their descendants are sprinkled over shoaly areas in all the bays below the Narrows. They are found on West Bank Shoal, East Bank Shoal, Old Orchard Shoal, Round Shoal, Flynns Shoal, and Romer Shoal. They live in clumps and patches; a clump may have several dozen oysters in it and a patch may have several hundred. Divers and dredgemen call them wild oysters. It is against state and city laws to "dig, rake, tong, or otherwise remove" these oysters from the water. A few elderly men who once were bedders are still living in the old Staten Island oyster ports, and many sons and grandsons of bedders. They have a proprietary feeling about harbor oysters, and every so often, in cold weather, despite the laws, some of them go out to the old, ruined beds and poach a mess. They know what they are doing; they watch the temperature of the water to make sure the oysters are "sleeping," or hibernating, before they eat any. Oysters shut their shells and quit feeding and begin to hibernate when the temperature of the water in which they lie goes down to forty-one degrees; in three or four days, the free themselves of whatever germs they may have taken in, and then they are clean and safe.

There is a physician in his late fifties in St. George whose father and grandfather were bedders. On a wall of his waiting room hangs an heirloom, a chart of oyster plots on West Bank Shoal that was made in 1886 by a marine surveyor for the state; it is wrinkled and finger-smudged and salt-water-spotted, and his grandfather's plot, which later became his father's -- a hundred and two acres on the outer rim of the shoal, down below Swinburne Island -- is bounded on it in red ink. The physician keeps a sea skiff in one of the south shore ports and goes fishing every decent Sunday. He stores a pair of pole-handled tongs in the skiff and sometimes spends a couple of hours hunting for lumps of harbor oysters. One foggy Sunday afternoon last March, he got in his skiff, with a companion, and remarked to the people on the dock that he was going codfishing on the Scallop Ridge, off Rockaway Beach. Instead, picking his way through the fog, he want up to the West Bank and dropped anchor on one of his father's old beds and began tonging. He made over two dozen grabs and moved the skiff four times before he located a clump. It was a big clump, and he tonged up all the oysters in it; there were exactly sixty. All were mature, all were speckled with little holes made by boring sponges, and all were wedge-shaped. Sea hair, a marine weed, grew thickly on their shells. One was much bigger than the others, and the physician picked it up and smoothed aside its mat of coarse, black, curly sea hair and counted the ridges on its upper shell and said that it was at least fourteen years old. "It's too big to eat on the half shell," he told his companion. He bent over the gunnel of the skiff and gently put it back in the water. Then he selected a dozen that ranged in age from four to seven years and opened them. Their meats were well developed and gray-green and glossy. He ate one with relish. "Every time I eat harbor oysters," he said, "my childhood comes floating up from the bottom of my mind." He reflected a few moments. "They have a high iodine content," he continued, "and they have a characteristic taste. When I was a boy in Prince's Bay, the old bedders used to say that they tasted like almonds. Since the water went bad, that taste has become more pronounced. It's become coppery and bitter. If you've ever tasted the little nut that's inside the pit of a peach, the kernel, that's how they taste..."

Excerpt from Joseph Mitchell, "The Bottom of the Harbor," reprinted in Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories (Vintage Books, 1992), pp. 465-488.

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