A tribute to the “Cowboys of the Sky”

Updated: Feb 9


In one of my older posts I talked about the Barnstorming, a form of entertainment in which stunt pilots used to make the craziest things in the air to attract an audience: dangerous spins, loops and the barrel roll, stall turns and wing overs while reckless aerialists performed crazy stunts like switching from a plane to another, wing walking, parachuting and even playing tennis…

Look at these reckless stunts on a bi-plane (picture above) … breathtaking, isn’t it?

Either individually or in groups, they were called flying circuses and used to entertain crowded fields of people paying the tickets for a show or a plane ride. They soon gained fame and became very popular. The unbelievable and amazing story of these brave, daredevil and risk lovers made everybody dream between 1919 and the end of 1920s, they enchanted people that stared at them in slack-Jawed amazement during their flight performances.

These people were stuntmen, they made those craziness in the air for fun. They were reckless and daredevil performers who challenged the peril with incomparable and unprecedented bravery. They pushed themselves to their limits: the more their performance was dangerous, the more they enjoyed doing that. The more they challenged death with their flying circus the more crowds of people payed to watch those crazy men. Their job was pretty unsafe, but at least we know for sure that it was their choice of life.


However, there is another category of so-called brave workers that I think it is worth to spare a thought for: that is the “Cowboys of the Sky”. They were not sporty men like Barnstormers, neither they made stunts for fun and glory. These men were just construction workers who, between 1910s and 1930s, worked at breakneck heights to build the massive awesome skyscrapers we can admire today, especially in New York City.


The New Yorker Art Deco style lines buildings were characterised by a totally new futuristic shapes for that time, like spheres, polygons, rectangles etc…, symmetrical patterns and sunburst motifs. New eye-catching and mesmerising shapes were combined with materials like stainless steel and aluminium that better expressed the wish of modernity and economic prosperity typical of the Art Deco period.




The beginning of 1900s was a time of full economic growth and urban expansion. It was the Belle Epoque, an amazing period where positivity towards the future was spread among the masses. New inventions were made and publicised by the mean of world fairs and start of new projects was quite usual. The Industrial sector was making progress in leaps and bound, thanks to the development of the hydraulic elevator and the invent of electrical lighting. Both the progress and the population growth led to the construction of new kind of high-rise buildings: the skyscrapers.


The “Cowboys of the Sky” built those futuristic towers with their bare hands with no kind of protection and very little guarantee of safety and security. As you will see in the pictures below, they did not make use of any harnesses or hard hats.


Forget the nowadays extreme sports. These brave men were the forefathers of lightminded Instagrammers of our time that we see taking their pictures from the top of high-rise buildings just to gain more like and popularity by the use of the hashtags like #Extremeselfie and #Daredevil. Not only the “Cowboys of the Sky” were unaware pioneer of these death-defying pictures but thanks to their daring, fearless and reckless spirit, we can admire such towering wonders in all their glory. These brave souls risked their lives to do that! And they didn’t do it for the fun or the thrill, they did it because they had to.



Workers at Brooklyn Bridge, 1915

Workers atop the Woolworth building in New York, 1926 This photo makes palms sweat. Look at the guy standing on that spire ...

The Chrysler Building under construction, New York, 1929

Costruction workers hauled up in New York at their own place of work, 1920s

Flirting with danger was just routine work, New York 1920s

Construction worker in New York, 1930s

A steel workers working on the construction of the Empire State Building, 1930

This reckless soul on the 88th floor of the new Empire State Building., 1930

Charles Clyde Ebbets - GE Building, Rockefeller Center, 1932

These window washers cleaning up the Empire State Building in a precarious hundreds feets of heights, 1932

Lighting up a sigarette on the Empire State, 1932

A structural worker on a steel girder during the construction of the Empire State Building, 1930

Charles Clyde Ebbets - GE Building, Rockefeller Center, 1932

Charles Clyde Ebbets - GE Building, Rockefeller Center, 1932

Charles Clyde Ebbets - Cunstruction workers on top of GE Building, the heart of Rockefeller Center, 1932

A construction worker hanging from an industrial crane, Empire State Building, 1930

An intrepid window washers working on the Empire State Building, 1936

Four men climb Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, 1914

A man balancing on scaffolding, 150 ft over New Orleans, 1925

A worker walking blindfolded on a construction girder, New York City, 1925

Cowboys of the Sky on the Telephone Company building (Verizon Building) in New York, 1925

Defying death at 1,284 feet into the air, New York, 1930

This worker seems alone in his thoughts, at a dizzying height with Chrysler Building in background. New York, 1930

These daredevil workers on the Empire State Building were fearless! They were unaware of beeing the pioneer subjects of the extreme photography. New York, 1930

The “Cowboys of the Sky” built those futuristic towers with their bare hands with no kind of protection and very little guarantee of safety and security. They did not make use of any harnesses or hard hats. Empire State Building, 1930

Charles Clyde Ebbets - GE Building, Rockefeller Center, 1932

The iconic "Lunch atop a Skyscraper" by Charles Clyde Ebbets, GE Building Rockefeller Center, 1932