But in the days before safety harnesses and aerial lifts, hundreds of men climbed to the top of the towering iron columns to piece the iconic structure together.
The grueling and dangerous tasks – which continue today – unite the ironworkers as a real band of brothers. So it’s no surprise that they celebrate their achievements at an annual festival each year.
HOOKED ON IRON
Tim Roman, the current president of the Ironworkers’ volunteer committee, was drawn to the Mackinaw City area as a 20-year-old.
“I was impressionable,” said Roman, who attended his first festival in 2000. “I was fortunate to be on a crew doing a major project on the Mackinac Bridge … I was immediately hooked on what was happening.”
Roman made the effort to return to the festival for years to follow, and in 2007 he accepted a job representing ironworkers in the U.P.
“It was pretty natural from that point forward to be involved with the festival and keep the fire burning,” said Roman, who is now president of the fest.
It’s a job that has its own share of highs and lows.
“Coordinating the volunteers, along with the skilled events, are the most rewarding part of all the efforts,” he said. “In the off-time, fundraising and seeking vendors is the big task.”
This year’s Ironworkers Festival marks the 31st consecutive year for the event.
“It all started with some iron workers hanging out a couple climbs up a column, and a race evolved out of it,” Roman said. “The competition and camaraderie that took place was compelling enough to draw those ironworkers back a second year, and so on it goes growing.”
The column climb showcases the physical demands and perils in iron working, Roman said. It is both the competitor and crowd favorite.
“In days prior to safety harnesses and aerial lifts, climbing a column or riding the headache ball [a steel ballast on a crane] were the only ways to access the steel being erected,” he said. “If you wanted to be an ironworker, you had to be able to get to where the work was at.”
In addition to the column climb, there’s the spud throw (long, pointed-end wrenches called “spud wrenches”), rod tying (in which pliers are used to tie specific knots around steel rods), and the rivet toss, an homage to the time when structural beams were secured into place using hot steel rivets (the ones at the fest are kept cold for safety reasons.)
Other activities include a parade, live music, and of course refreshments. While Roman says it’s impossible for him to choose a favorite event, one of his favorite festival elements is the strong sense of fraternity among the ironworkers.
“Both the competitors and the crowds cheer on everyone who participates,” he said. “The sportsmanship is great to be around.”
In Roman’s estimation, the festival has been growing so much in popularity that it’s pretty close to outgrowing its grounds in Mackinaw City.
“This event brings together the men and women who do these tasks on a daily basis,” he said. “It gives us an opportunity to showcase our craft, and to showcase what it takes physically and mentally to ‘build America.’”
This year’s International Ironworkers Festival will be held Aug. 8-10 in Mackinaw City. For more information, visit them on Facebook.