Steeplejacks with Nerves of Steel

By Jack Sheedy

As we enter Easter weekend, I thought it appropriate to glance skyward. Not so much toward the heavens. But rather, toward the tapering spires and steeples of the many churches which pepper this salty peninsula.

Travel any of the main routes throughout the various Cape villages and you are certain to happen upon an old meetinghouse or two. These historic buildings are part of the local landscape. And with their soaring spires and rising steeples come steeplejacks with nerves of steel to climb up them and maintain them.

For instance, in December 1916 the membership of the Congregational Church in Sandwich raised $140 for repairs to the spire and then hired a steeplejack to do the job. By August of the following year the spire was repaired and repainted, and the steeplejack moved on to his next job. Similarly, in 1926 steeplejacks performed work on the Congregational Church is Chatham, replacing timbers and repainting the structure (previous repairs were made in 1887, some 40 years earlier).

Our book, Cape Odd, contains a brief mention of a pair of steeplejacks who visited Barnstable in September 1928. In this particular case they were not painting a church steeple, but rather, a flagpole at the Court House. This job had the men hovering some 135 feet above the ground upon suspended seats. They were Hain Bask from Providence, Rhode Island and a fellow named Gardie Watt from Edinburgh, Scotland. According to a newspaper account, Watt was a bit of a celebrity in the steeplejack world. He was a war hero during WWI flying for the Royal Scottish Airship Corps, during which he was wounded in action over Marne, France and was later honored for bravery.

After the war he became a stunt airplane flyer in the United States, in Hollywood, but was injured in that endeavor as well. So he turned to a slightly less dangerous occupation, that of steeplejack. In his new job he found himself climbing not only church steeples and flag poles, but also radio poles, chimneys, and aerial masts. Basically, anything that was tall and required a person with a head for heights and nerves of steel was a job for Watt.

During his brief stint on Cape in 1928 his work attracted crowds who stood below at street level and watched him “perform.”

Jack Sheedy is the co-author of Cape Cod Collected and Cape Odd.

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