Don’t Look Down! Harrowing Photos of Early High-Rise Workers Way Up in the Sky

Nikola Budanovic
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Photo by Getty Images

In the early 20th century, a construction boom took hold in large cities of the U.S. such as New York and Chicago. Gigantic skyscrapers were erected from the ground up, demonstrating the lavish economic power of American industrialists who were literally competing with each other in terms of who could build the highest building in the city.

Racing to the sky, these magnates often overlooked the safety of their workers, who would die by the dozen during construction. It was once estimated that for every $1 million spent on a construction site, a worker would lose his life due to an accident.

A photograph of a cable worker, taken by Lewis Hine as part of his project.


A worker at the edge of a platform, looking north.


Atop the Empire State – in construction – Chrysler Bldg & [Daily] News in middle foreground.

A construction worker on the Empire State Building.

There were no helmets involved and rarely any safety ropes, thus the construction workers were left on their own to overcome severe issues of vertigo and other problems that came when working sometimes up to 1,250 feet (380 m) off the ground. As one work foreman famously stated:

“Building skyscrapers is the nearest peace-time equivalent of war.”

Empire State Building construction, photographed by Lewis Hine.


Empire State Building construction, photographed by Lewis Hine.


Painters working on the bridge, October 1914, photograph taken by Eugene de Salignac.

However, while the workers faced death on a daily basis, over time many of them became comfortable with the idea of working in such a dangerous environment. Their lifestyle soon came into the spotlight, with reports being written and photos often snapped, capturing the horror and glory of the skyscraper construction worker.

Nicknamed “Cowboys of the skies” by the press, these daredevils were glad to risk their lives for a photograph or two in the newspapers. This was how a number of unnerving pictures were created, in which these “cowboys” seem to defy gravity itself, while certainly defying their fears and testing their balance.

‘Raising the Mast, Empire State Building,’ photograph, silver print, by the American photographer Lewis W. Hine. Yale University Art Gallery, gift of Lisa Rosenblum, B.A. 1975. Courtesy of Yale University, New Haven, Conn.


Riveters attaching a beam.


Two construction workers at the corner of two steel beams, pointing to the left.


Worker attaching a bolt onto a beam.

Whether it be eating lunch atop of the Rockefeller Centre, or walking blindfolded on a girder, hundreds of feet off the ground, the death-defying attitude soon turned into a trademark for the people who chose to participate in the construction of some of the highest buildings ever made.

Read another story from us:  Old-fashioned danger – the daredevils that enthralled crowds

Practicing balance was key, as they had no one else to rely on apart themselves. We can still marvel at these daredevils through photographs that captured them casually strolling the skeletal structures of future skyscrapers, or even ordering a meal on the tenth floor of the unfinished Waldorf Astoria, delivered by two equally brave bow tie and jacket-clad waiters.