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12.8.11: An Ironworker Remembers

Space Needle History: Thursday at the Needle

Knute Berger, Writer-in-Residence

Jack Edwards was an ironworker who, at age 29, worked on the Space Needle. He was a "connector," meaning his job was the dangerous and skilled worked of fitting the Needle's heavy parts together. Imagine: you're hundreds of feet in the air with no harness, not net, and you're maneuvering huge steel beams that weigh many tons into place, sometimes in a still wind, or even snow.

Edwards says the safety gear was eschewed by the ironworkers who called such harnesses "scare straps." But it wasn't just for the sake of macho. The connectors needed to be nimble to jump out of the way of swinging steel or cables. They needed agility to crawl inside the Needle's legs to connect the parts, and to work on fragile platforms called floats, essentially plywood slabs tied to the beans with manila rope. They felt much safer being agile to move and not have to worry about tripping over lines and ropes. And it took skill to move around: workers carried 10 to 15 pounds of standard tools on their belts, plus often an added pry bar or 8-lb. maul. In other words, they had a lot of heavy gear on them.

Edwards said he came to work each morning around 3 am and worked until 4:30 pm. They started early because the giant beams were delivered when traffic was light so they could get giant parts to the work site from the industrial area without delay. And he said the long hours were fine because, as union men, they got paid over time. He said their entire shift was spent in the air.

Edwards says he worked on every level of the Needle, including a temporary 300 level that was in place only during construction. And they worked rain or shine. He said he helped put up the halo section below the observation deck during a snowstorm. Was he afraid of heights? "I'm afraid," he said. "But I respect them." Edwards has worked on taller structures than the Needle, including a more than 1,000-foot tower in Alaska that almost fell over with him on it during on storm. One of his hobbies: mountain climbing.

While we dined at the Needle today, Edwards was able to answer a question I had found confusing. We were there exactly 50 years to the day that the ironworkers raised a flag on the Needle's mast, Dec. 8, 1961. It's a tradition that when ironworkers put the top on a structure, they immediately raise the flag. But while the mast was on the Needle, it was not on the very top as it is today because a special construction crane was in the way. So the mast was set on a special platform to one side. Edwards says he was one of the first men to climb that mast. Like a mountaineer, he claims "first ascent."

However, on Dec. 14, 1961 the crane was removed, a steeplejack working for the Howard S. Wright Co. climbed the newly installed tower on the very top of the Needle's roof and placed a Christmas tree there, marking the symbolic completion of the tower erection.

I asked Edwards what he would most like to say about the construction of the Needle, and he said that he wanted people to know about the excellence of his fellow workers. He said, "Sometimes the unwashed masses are left out" of the story, and he wanted to make sure the skilled men who put the Needle together piece by piece were remembered.


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