A chance encounter with a blog story about a Baltimore Steeplejack suddenly raised my
awareness of an interesting New England occupation–a steeplejack. And yes, I know steeples can be found outside of the northeast, but we probably have more per capita. If you think of the typical, quintessential New Hampshire town, in your mind’s eye you envision at least one white church spire.
From the moment that the first church steeple was erected in New Hampshire, so came the need for men to repair or replace them. It was dangerous work in a day without cranes or sturdy metal ladders.
Steeplejacks were sturdy, well coordinated and balanced individuals (some use the word fool hardy too) who dared to climb the high peaks and roofs of buildings in order to repair, paint, or replace them. Many of the steeples included clocks, weathervanes or lightning rods that were prone to problems.
The Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics, dated July 1, 1854 reported: A REMARKABLE FEAT.–Sometime since the point of the lightning-rod on the steeple of the First Congregational Church in New-London got unscrewed and fell to the ground. It was such a dangerous piece of work to replace it, that the committee were unwilling to employ any one to perform the task. A Mr. De Wolf, however, volunteered to make the attempt, which the committee permitted after some hesitation, having promised him a handsome sum if he succeeded. He DID succeed, accomplishing the task without any apparent consciousness of having done anything extraordinary. The New-London Chronicle says the point to which he ascended is very near 206 feet, and for the last fifty feet he had to climb up a stone surface, with nothing to hold on to but a small iron rod; and when he reached the ball he was still some dozen feet from the end of his journey. This distance he had to shin up against a single rod, a labor which he found so fatiguing that he became exhausted, and was obliged to return and seat himself on the ball to recover his breath. This he soon did, and fearlessly resumed his travels toward the clouds, where he accomplished his object, and came down, as we have already stated.
The newspapers are full of stories where steeple workers fell to their deaths. December 24, 1935 Portsmouth Herald– N.H. STEEPLEJACK MEETS DEATH AT PROVINCETOWN. Provincetown, Mass., Dec 24.–Louis Costa, 25, recruit of a Laconia, N.H. steeplejack crew engaged in making chimney and roof repairs on the Town Hall, forfeited his life yesterday because of his eagerness to work on the slippery, hazardous roof to make a few extra dollars for Christmas. His steeplejack chair broke loose from the clock tower of the historical hall, causing him to slide off the high roof and plunge 100 feet to the ground after crashing through the branches of a small tree.
You would think that such dangerous work would have been limited to men. In May of
1937 the Portsmouth NH Herald touted “Daring Girl Steeplejack Works Here.” The story focused on Miss Marion Plunkett, from Newburyport, Massachusetts who “calmly rigged her tackle, hoisted herself to the top of two large iron chimneys of the Portsmouth Glass Company and went to work painting them with no thought of the distance to terra firma.” The story goes on to state that she is the only professional steeplejack in the East, working with Paul M. “Red” O’Leary of Exeter whose former partner fell 300 feet to his death on a chimney job in New Orleans. Marion also jumped from a plane with a parachute for exhibitions, and was an expert swimmer and diver. “Mr. O’Leary is glad she gave that up (the skydiving) and is doing ‘something safe’–steeplejacking. In July of 1937 Miss Marion Plunkett and her partner Paul “Red” O’Leary were back painting Portmouth’s North Church spire, and she is being touted as “the only woman in the United States that is engaged in this risky work.” [Editor's note: Lets call her a steeplejill, shall we?]
Sometimes the steeplejack’s work became too dangerous, and they needed assistance.
Portsmouth Herald, 29 July 1940– Steeplejack Dangles, Manchester NH–after dangling from the end of a fallen flagpole three stories about the street, steeplejack William Trooker was rescued Saturday by firemen.
Steeplejack’s are as injury prone as anyone else it seems. Portsmouth Herald, 21 October 1953 STEEPLEJACK HURT IN PORCH FALL. Berwick–William Wallingford, 41 of 3 Sullivan Street, a steeplejack, suffered back injuries Thursday night when he fell from a veranda. He was hospitalized at Frisbie Memorial Hospital in Rochester overnight and was scheduled to be transferred today to Mary Hitchcock Hospital in Hanover for treatment by a neurosurgeon.
Steeplejacking is one of those occupations that will continue to exist as long as tall steeples, flagpoles and chimneys do–for those with a steady hand, good balance and nerves of steel.
Some Current Steeplejack Companies Based in New England
Robert Morgan & Company – steeplejacking since 1906
Jay Southgate, Steeplejack – based in Vermont, an interesting interview.
Church Specialties – limited to church steeples, church bells, and clock towers.
Just Google “Steeplejack” for more