Building the Empire State Building: The Daredevil Sky Boys

constructing the empire state building

The Empire State Building soars above Manhattan’s skyline… but it wasn’t easy to build!

Building the Empire State Building? Not an easy task. After all, this “Eighth Wonder of the World,” an Art Deco marvel towering over midtown Manhattan, was the world’s tallest building for over 40 years!

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

Building the empire state building New york

Sky boys at work. Photo by Lewis Hine

Excavation for the Empire State Building began on January 22, 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.

The sky boys put on the best open-air show in town…

The gravity-defying ironworkers 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

empire state building construction

Hard at work. Photo by Lewis Hine

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? Weather

As fearless as the riveters and iron workers seemed, there was one danger they heeded: weather. When it rained, there was a danger of slipping; when it was bitterly cold, stiff or numb hands could not hold onto anything.

building the empire state building

Going up, up, up… Photo by Lewis Hine

Thanks to their hard work, the Empire State Building was built in record time

The Empire State Building’s steel structure rose  quickly, averaging 4.5 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.

Thanks to Lewis Hine, the process of building the Empire State Building is well-documented

Fortunately, the Empire State Corporation commissioned Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940) to take photos of construction for use as advertising. Hine, a schoolteacher and self-taught photographer, took approximately 1m000 photos over six months during 1930-1931.

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.

Click here for a gallery of Hines’ photographs.

Empire State Building skybox

A skyboy takes a rest. Photo by Lewis Hine

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.”

Brass medallions Empire State Building

Brass medallions in the building’s lobby. Photo by Jeff Dobbins

Today, pay homage to the Empire State Building workers in the building’s lobby

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.

For more, check out this incredible film footage of the fearless sky boys at work.

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