America Driven by Courage and the Nerve to Do Whatever It Takes

The Empire State Building, an oil on canvas by Glenn O. Coleman (1887-1932) sold for $40,000 at a March 2017 Heritage auction. Mohawk riveting gangs worked on the skyscraper, and other monumental New York buildings.

By Jim O’Neal

The American Revolutionary War effectively ended on Oct. 19, 1781, at Yorktown, Va. That was the day British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his army to General George Washington. However, it took two more years until the Treaty of Paris was signed on Sept. 3, 1783, to formalize the negotiated peace terms.

The peace negotiations were led by Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Henry Laurens and John Adams, who were very clever to exclude American allies France and Spain and strike a deal directly with Great Britain to achieve better terms. Despite this ploy, there were still several areas still in contention. In 1794, now Chief Justice John Jay was finally forced to negotiate an additional agreement (Jay’s Treaty) to resolve a number of lingering issues.

Flash forward to 1926 and we find a Mohawk ironworker from Quebec, Canada, Paul Diabo, facing deportation in Philadelphia after being charged as an illegal alien in violation of the Immigration Act of 1924. The court ruled he had every right to enter the United States (at will) by virtue of the Jay Treaty with the Iroquois Confederacy.

By then, the Kahnawake-Mohawk Indians had gained a well-known reputation as world-class high-steel workers. Ironworking requires a rare combination of strength, intelligence and courage. It involves laying the foundations and building the metal skeletons to support skyscrapers. Workers handle the lifting, fixing and welding of heavy steel beams, often while hundreds of feet up in the air. The Mohawks had demonstrated an exceptional skill that was unmatched.

It all started in 1886 when the fledgling Canadian Pacific Railway needed to span the St. Lawrence River and hired the Dominion Bridge Company to build a cantilevered bridge over the water. One significant issue was it would have to be set on land belonging to the Mohawks, who were willing to give their approval, but only with the proviso that they could work on the project. The company quickly agreed, assuming the Mohawks would be able to do all the menial tasks associated with such a big project. They were subsequently astonished when, instead, they showed great agility and a desire to become higher-paid riveters.

Initially, Dominion trained a dozen volunteers in this difficult, dangerous skill that entailed heating red-hot rivets, tossing them 30 to 40 feet where other co-workers caught them and forced them through steel beams with a hammer or pneumatic drill … while high off the ground up in the infrastructure. Soon, there was a cadre of over 70 highly trained iron and steel riveters and they started working on projects throughout Canada.

The Mohawk riveting gangs continued to proliferate and spread out, by the 1910s arriving in New York. As their numbers and reputations continued to grow, they inevitably worked on all the monumental structures in greater New York: the Empire State Building, George Washington Bridge, Chrysler Building, United Nations Assembly, and Triborough Bridge … among many other less well-known skyscrapers.

By the 1930s, a community of 700 Mohawks were living in a Brooklyn suburb and drinking Canadian beer at the Wigwam bar, with its picture of Jim Thorpe on the wall and the sign “The Greatest Iron Workers in the World Pass Through These Doors.” In addition to frequent trips back and forth to Canada, they traveled all over the United States, even arriving in time to help rivet the majestic Golden Gate Bridge.

Today, the demand for “High Steel” riveting has declined, but as a Dominion Bridge official once observed, “Men who want to do it are rare. And men who can do it are even rarer!”

I suppose the same could be said of the Colonial soldiers who followed General Washington in a seemingly impossible task to win our independence. Courage and the nerve to do whatever it takes.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

We Have Lost Something Sacred in Today’s Judicial Nomination Process

John Jay (1745-1829) was the first Chief Justice of the United States.

By Jim O’Neal

The Supreme Court was created in 1789 by Article III of the U.S. Constitution, which stipulates “the judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court.” Congress organized it with the Judiciary Act of 1789.

John Jay of New York, one of the Founding Fathers, was the first Chief Justice of the United States (1789–95). Earlier, he was president of the Continental Congress (1778-79) and worked to ratify the U.S. Constitution by writing five of the Federalist Papers. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison wrote the other 85-plus essays, which were published in two volumes called “The Federalist” (“The Federalist Papers” title emerged in the 20th century).

Nearly 175 years later, in 1962, President John F. Kennedy nominated Byron Raymond “Whizzer” White to replace Associate Justice Charles Whittaker, who became chief legal counsel to General Motors (presumably with a nice salary increase). Whittaker had been the first person to serve as judge at all three levels: Federal District Court, Federal Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court (a distinction matched by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor).

White was the 1960 Colorado state chair for JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign and had met both the future president and his father Joe while attending Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship in London when Joe Kennedy was ambassador to the Court of St James. This was after White had graduated from Colorado University Phi Beta Kappa, where he was also a terrific athlete, playing basketball, baseball and finishing runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. He is unquestionably the finest athlete to serve on the Supreme Court.

He continued mixing scholarship and athletics at Yale Law School, where he graduated No. 1 in his class magna cum laude and played three years in the National Football League for the Pittsburg Pirates (now the Steelers). He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954.

Judge White was in the minority on the now-famous Roe v. Wade landmark decision on Jan. 22, 1973. Coincidentally, there was a companion case that has been virtually forgotten called Doe v. Bolton (Mary Doe v. Arthur K. Bolton, Attorney General of Georgia, et al.) that was decided on exactly the same day and on the identical issue (overturning the abortion law of Georgia). White was in the minority here, too.

White’s nomination was confirmed by a simple voice vote (i.e. by acclamation). He was the first person from Colorado to serve on the Supreme Court and it appears that one of his law clerks … Judge Neil Gorsuch, also from Colorado … most likely will become the second, although it is unlikely he will receive many Democratic votes, much less a voice vote.

Times have certainly changed in judicial politics and, unfortunately, for the worse … sadly. Advise and Consent has morphed into a “just say no” attitude and we have lost something sacred in the process.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].