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Ironworkers hold topping out ceremony at casino hotel

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AKWESASNE – Ironworkers Local 440 celebrated nearly eight months of hard labor on Friday afternoon with a topping out ceremony as the final beam of what will be a seven-story, 150-room hotel at the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino was laid in place.

About 200 people showed up for the event.

The beam was adorned with five flags, representing the Haudenosaunee, Mohawk Nation and St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, and also two bearing the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino and Mohawk Bingo Palace insignias. An American flag hung from the cable connecting the beam to the crane.

In the middle of the flags was a small pine tree, which retired ironworker Mike Swamp said is symbolic of building materials, since buildings used to be made of wood. He said the ceremony goes back at least 100 years.

“It’s been a tradition for the ironworker since he’s been doing this kind of work,” Mr. Swamp said. “It’s a big tradition here on the reserve.”

The celebration doesn’t stop with Friday’s display and luncheon. Following a Friday night ceremony, Mr. Swamp said the ironworkers will all get together on Saturday morning and participate in competitions using materials from the job site. He said games will include tossing a bolt into a basket 20 feet above the ground, a beam walk race, and a spud throwing contest. The beam walk race is done on a five-inch wide beam that is placed on the ground. The spud throw is done using a three-pound spud wrench that is sharpened at one end and thrown at a target.

The main event, Mr. Swamp said, is the column climb. The contest will see who can crawl using only hands and feet up a 35-foot column with no grips. He said the racers will be safety harnessed, but that wasn’t always so, both at contests and on the job.

Both Mr. Swamp and ironworker historian Bill Sears said when they got into the field more than four decades ago, there were no safety harnesses or protective gear. Mr. Sears said he wore only a hard hat and steel toe boots when he and four other local ironworkers helped build the World Trade Center in the early 1970s. He said they would cut the safety line off their tool bag because it enabled them to carry an extra bolt bag.

“You don’t look down – that’s how you get vertigo. Just stare on the horizon and keep that beam in sight, because you’ll go right to it,” Mr. Sears said. “You never stop, just keep going. Don’t look down, just keep going.”

“This is not everybody’s work,” Mr. Swamp added.

The $74 million construction project, when finished in March 2013, will combine the casino and the Mohawk Bingo Palace, plus add gaming and hotel space.

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