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City Folk

Man of Iron

Bill Bordeau was part of a rivet gang that built the Bay Bridge

Photo: J.M.Giordano, License: N/A

J.M.Giordano


It was the mid-’70s, and Maryland was getting a new bridge that would connect the Eastern Shore to well-heeled vacationers who were looking to retreat from the humid Baltimore summers. Up on high steel, William Sotienton Bordeau and his fellow Mohawk Indians watched a span of the new bridge float down the Patapsco. Even after almost three decades as iron workers, they’d never seen anything like this huge shimmering piece of metal—which they had helped build on a massive pier at the end of South Clinton Street—come down river.

They loved it up there in the wind, Bordeau and his friends. They could see everything and didn’t have to worry about things falling on their heads from above. The Mohawks, as a people, helped build skyscrapers from Chicago to Detroit.

“Mohawks aren’t afraid of anything,” says Bordeau, who goes by Bill and has never used his Mohawk name, Sotienton, which means “sitting down,” for anything other than the Mowhawk ID he’s carried since he was born on the Kahnawake Reservation just outside of Montreal. “They love to climb.”

Since the ’40s, Bordeau and his extended family traveled throughout the North Country in a “rivet gang” convoy, taking iron-worker jobs where they could get them. When they got to Maryland, they took jobs at the massive Sparrows Point steel mill.

“My father was an iron worker in the ’30s in Montreal. That’s where I was born, on the reservation up there,” Bordeau says, sitting at his daughter’s kitchen table. “They used hammers to drive rivets back then. We were all iron workers. I was 17 when I started with my brother.”

Despite his age, Bordeau, who turned 92 in April, is still stout, with a face that carries the features of generations of Mohawk people and a skin tone the brown of raw pig iron. A century ago, his face would have ended up on the glass plate negative of an Edward Curtis photograph. His voice, while not as deep as it used to be, echoes the nasal notes of the upper Midwest, accented with the last remnants of his Canadian birthplace, each sentence punctuated with a guttural “you know?”

Bordeau traveled around with his rivet gang—his brother Tom and good friend Martin Lester—which eventually tore down a blast furnace at the mothership, the Bethlehem Steel plant in Bethlehem, Pa. But he got his first taste of the high steel while helping to tear down the swing span of the Tappan Zee Bridge in upstate New York. And in 1943, his rivet gang would get to work on a series of buildings that would help change human history.

“We worked on these buildings in Oak Ridge, [Tennessee],” Bordeau says. “It was a big secret. No one working on them knew what they were or what they were for. But we found out a few years later when they dropped the [atomic] bomb on [Hiroshima]. We built the buildings where the bomb was constructed.”

The gang worked hard, taking on jobs in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Charleston, W.Va.

After Charleston, where they were working on a powerhouse, Lester suggested they give another town a try. This time, in about 1955, they would end up in Sparrows Point. Bordeau quit the caravan life and stayed at the mill. He had kids—a boy and two girls—a wife, and new prospects at the Bethlehem Steel Plant, where he and his friends would become so-called “red hats.” The hats took on any job they could at the plant until the building of the second Bay Bridge began.

“We joined up with Local #16,” Bordeau said. “The foreman, Lou Wachter, sent us to the Clinton Street [pier], where we built one of the spans for the second Bay Bridge. They called us ‘yard birds’ because we worked in the yard to put the span together before they floated down the river.”

The second Chesapeake Bay Bridge, as it was known, was built from both sides of the steel structure, meeting in the middle, according to Bordeau.

“We worked mostly in the yards. But when they were finished there, we were sent to go up on the bridge. It was great to see,” he said. “The first time I went up, it was tricky. But once up there, you were free like a bird.”

After the bridge was built, Bordeau continued to work as a red hat until he retired in 1984.

“I was glad to go,” Bordeau said. “The first thing I did the day after I retired was turn off the alarm clock. No more early mornings for me.”

Though he was always an iron worker, being a Mohawk came first. He made sure that his daughters and son would know the traditions of their ancestors. Sometimes, like on his 92nd birthday, he wears a traditional Mohawk war bonnet and carries an eagle feather.

“I remember going to powwows and dancing,” his eldest daughter, Arlene, says. “Dad made sure we knew where we came from.”

When Bordeau stops at youngest daughter Marlene’s home on Bear Creek in Dundalk, he can see the shuttered steel mill and, if he cranes his neck, he can see the bridge where he stood up in the air, afraid of nothing.

 

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