Bolt Tossing, Beam Walking and Column Climbing: The Ironworkers Festival in Akwesasne Draws International Crowd
As the last beam of iron was put into place at the site of the up and coming Akwesasne Mohawk Casino hotel and local 440 Akwesasne Mohawk Ironworkers celebrated the official “topping off ceremony,” the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino held its tenth Annual Ironworkers festival. At the festival, ironworkers from ages 18 to 82 from all over the United States and Canada competed against each other in events such as rod tying, spud throwing, bolt tossing, the beam walk and the column climb.
Benjamin Herne, Akwesasne Mohawk Casino public relations manager, who has brothers that are ironworkers and a father that was an ironworker for 37 years, talked about a few of the day’s events. Herne said that though many of the competitions were geared toward union ironworkers, there was another event directed at the women of ironworking families. This event was called women’s packing, which is significant here because a lot of the women go through having to pack for the men that have to get up and go for the week. It is a timed event. Herne also said 2012 was the first year the festival would be introducing the beam walk. “It shows the balance and the coordination needed to be an ironworker. That beam could be thousands of feet in the air,” he said. “The big event,” Herne continued, “is the column climb...typically the overall champion is the winner of the column climb." Mike Swamp, an event organizer and retired Local 440 Akwesasne Ironworker, said the festival honoring ironworkers has a special meaning on the Mohawk reserve of Akwesasne.
“In our community, which is about 15,000, on any given day you could go to anyone’s house and ask if they have a union ironworker in their household. Nine times out of ten they will tell you, ‘Yes, someone was or is an ironworker.’ This community was built by ironworkers in the 40’s and 50’s,” said Swamp. “I had a hand in building the Lake Placid Olympic ski jumps. We had to get it done for the Olympics.”
“Akwesasne is the home of many unionized ironworkers. If I could make a count, there are probably a thousand unionized ironworkers here,” said Swamp. “From this community, we have ironworkers living in California, Chicago, Florida and New York and other areas. We have worked such famous projects as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge and the World Trade Center, including the tower being built now,” said Swamp. Bill Sears, an event coordinator and a retired local 440 ironworker of 46 years, commented on his family’s history of ironwork.
“I am a fourth generation ironworker. My great-great grandfather started before the turn of the twentieth century around 1898 in Kahnawake working on the train bridges in Montreal. I worked four years and seven months on the original two towers, and then on the recovery efforts [of 9/11]. I’ll be getting in on the current towers when they top it off,” said Sears. Sears also noted the importance of the Akwesasne Casino Hotel ironwork project to the Mohawk community. “It’s nice to have a big job like this on our own soil and on our own territory,” said Sears. “I never thought this would in a hundred years when I was a kid. The closest job I ever got was about 20 miles away; these guys here can go home for lunch if they want to.”
Though the day was light in spirits and many ironworkers competed with huge smiles and received a ton of handshakes after their event, there was perhaps, a deeper connection beneath the surface. According to Sears, “Whether someone is Native or not, we are all in the Union. We are all part of the same family, we are all ironworkers. Whether you are from Canada, The United States …Chicago, Florida…anywhere, we are all ironworkers.” Swamp added, “This job is not for anybody off the street. It’s a tough job and a tough profession. Years back our guys would walk a twelve inch beam a hundred floors up. They didn’t have safety equipment back then. But today it’s all about safety. When I started in 1969, my first job was 40 feet off the ground and it came naturally to me. I loved it. Every year this festival is growing and growing and it’s getting better every year.”
At the end of the day, it was Eric Costa from Local 301 in Tampa Florida that was crowned “Ultimate Ironworker 2012.” Costa had excelled in several events, and then he completed the column climb in 6.09 seconds, a new Akwesasne Ironworkers festival record. "I love coming to Akwesasne, this is really something we as ironworkers look forward to," Costa said. "I drove 17 hours to get here. So I don’t want to hear anybody complain about having to drive three hours." Other winners included Al Staley, Retiree Overall Champion, and Travis Thompson, Apprentice Overall and Ella Arquette of the Women’s Packing Competition.