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Cuthand: Bridge disaster of 1907 changes Mohawk community

At 5:35 p.m., on Aug. 29, 1907, the shift change whistle had just blown and the ironworkers constructing the Quebec Bridge were getting ready to leave for the day. Without warning, the bridge let out a mighty shudder and collapsed into the St. Lawrence River, taking 76 men to their deaths. Among them were 33 Mohawk workers from Kahnawake.

This tragedy would have a profound influence on the community for the next century. Of the 33 Mohawk men who died, 24 were married. The youngest was 18 and the eldest 44. The 44-year-old, named So Se O Ri, left behind a pregnant wife and a family of 11. Four family names ceased to exist following the disaster.

The Quebec Bridge was the longest cantilever bridge in the world with more than 1,800 feet between its piers. The original plan called for 1,600 feet, but it was increased to 1,800 to lower the cost. Also, the weight of the steel was underestimated; during construction it was found to be much higher. These items would be fatal errors.

In the days preceding the tragedy, the workers noticed popped rivets and bent girders. Also, some of the girders didn't line up properly when the workers tried to fit them in place. It was a sign that the bridge couldn't support the weight of the steel. The builder, Phoenix Bridge Company of New York, ordered a halt to construction, but the communication reached the construction crews too late. The bridge collapsed, creating the single worst tragedy in Canadian bridge-building history.

The history of the Kahnawake steelworkers is an interesting one. In 1896, the Dominion Bridge Company was constructing a railroad bridge across the St. Lawrence River. Part of the bridge had to be located on land that was part of the Kahnawake reserve. In return, the Mohawks demanded jobs and the company agreed, assuming they would be satisfied with menial work as grunt labor. They hired some men from the community as laborers but, instead, the men climbed the bridge girders and learned the basics of bridge construction. Management was impressed by their skill and ability to work at great heights in adverse conditions.

The rest is history.

By 1907, the Mohawk steelworkers had built their reputation and were hired on to the Quebec Bridge project as seasoned workers.

Following the tragedy, the Mohawk women met and decided that in the future, the men would work on separate construction jobs and work in small groups. Never again would they work together on a single project. Mohawk society is matriarchal; when the women make a decision, it must be obeyed.

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The remaining steelworkers fanned out across Canada and the United States, and by 1910 they reached New York City. They were joined by steelworkers from the Mohawk communities of Akwesasne, Tyendinaga and Six Nations.

By now, they were well known in the construction industry and their reputation preceded them. Mohawk steelworkers built the New York skyline, including the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the George Washington Bridge and the World Trade Center.

At the time of the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, there were 150 Mohawk steelworkers in New York. Some actually watched as the planes hit the World Trade Center. Fifty of the steelworkers were able to make it to Ground Zero and participate in the rescue effort. Since many of them had worked on the site, they were familiar with its construction.

On Aug. 29, the descendants of the 33 Mohawk men who died on the Quebec Bridge were remembered with a special ceremony in the community. This followed a centennial remembrance at St-Romuald on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River close to the Quebec Bridge. In Kahnawake, the community dedicated a monument to the steelworkers. Following the tragedy, a cross consisting of two girders from the bridge was erected in the church. The march ended with its rededication.

Today, when engineers graduate in Canada they have the option of wearing a steel ring as part of the ''ritual calling of an engineer.'' The ring is worn on the little finger of the working hand. It serves as a reminder that their work is an object of both pride and humility and people's lives are in their hands.

Legend has it the first rings were made from steel from the Quebec Bridge. This is only a legend, but the fact remains that the Quebec Bridge disaster and others forced engineers to reflect on the importance of their work.

Doug Cuthand is a Saskatoon freelance writer. ? The Leader-Post (Regina) 2007