Throwback Thursday: Rebuilding Old Ironsides

Imagine a ship is docked at your local port, and it towers over nearly every building in the neighborhood. That was the awesome sight of the USS Constitution in the 1790s, as it was under construction off Boston’s North End. Even without its masts, the frigate was the height of a four-story building. Only the steeple of the Old North Church could compete with that on the local skyline then.

We bring this up not only because the Tall Ships just visited Boston, but also because if you think about it, shipbuilding is a sister industry to our own land-based form of construction. Like a city high-rise, a ship is a unique, standalone structure (with its own name) that can take years to design and build. This feat was all the more impressive in the age of sail, when the endeavor relied largely on human brain and brawn.

And yet, in the case of Constitution—the last ship standing of the U.S. Navy’s original six, and the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat—what might be more impressive is the dedication to re-building. Since she first put to sea in 1797 to protect Yankee merchant voyages, every American generation has produced engineers, architects, carpenters, and other builders who pitched in to patch up a national treasure. That holds true today, as the current crop of restorers apply high-tech tools to the preservation of “Old Ironsides.”

To see for ourselves, we descended into the dry dock.

The eagle of the sea

Undefeated in the War of 1812, Constitution was already a legend when she entered the brand-new, Quincy-granite dry dock in Charlestown, Massachusetts, on June 24, 1833. (That’s 184 years from this Saturday.)

That’s where and when the story of Constitution’s repeated extensive overhauls begins in earnest. At minimum, the frigate needed new planking, masts, rigging, decking, stem, head, and quarter galleries. After an erroneous report got out that the Navy planned to scuttle her, a young Oliver Wendell Holmes published an ode to “the eagle of the sea,” which rallied Americans to her defense and assured her survival. The Navy decided Old Ironsides would be the first ship to get a new treatment.

dry dock design

USS Constitution Section in Dry Dock No 1 (Rendering courtesy of the Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston)

After six years of construction, the Charlestown Navy Yard’s Dry Dock One opened a week after its twin in Norfolk, Virginia. Both designed by Bay Stater Loammi Baldwin, Jr., they were the first large-scale dry docks in the States. Now the Navy could repair its fleet without resorting to the arduous process of “careening” a ship—that meant using weights to tip it over, first on one side then the other.

dry dock expansion

Dry Dock One’s 1940s expansion. (Photo courtesy of Charlestown Navy Yard Boston National Historical Park)

The dry dock was considered a marvel of engineering even decades later, and it was still used to service vessels during WWII. Although the dock had to be lengthened twice—from 341 feet to, eventually, 415—its width has remained the same, 86 feet at its widest point. “The interior of this dry dock was so well designed in the late 1820s,” said Margherita Desy, the official historian of the Navy’s Boston detachment, “that with the right shoring, you can put a flat-sided vessel in here, you can put a submarine in here—you can put vessels in this dock that could not have been conceived of by Loammi Baldwin 184 years ago.”

The coolest thing about the dry dock is how it works. Start by thinking of it as an artificial inlet. After a ship is towed in, another vessel called a caisson is towed to the entrance. (It’s not unlike other kinds of caissons you may have read about, here and here.) The caisson is filled with water and sunk into place.

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Your fearless blogger drops in to the dry dock. (Photo by Patrick Kennedy)

Then the dock is drained—slowly, so as to ease the ship onto its keel blocks. While the ballast water at the bottom of the caisson weighs it down, the pressure of the harbor beyond holds it at the dock’s seaward end, creating a watertight door.

When repairs are finished, the dock is flooded again, the caisson is emptied and floated out of the way, and the ship is towed back out into the harbor.

The operation requires a complex system of reservoir, tunnels, culverts, valves, and gates. In the 1830s, a steam engine powered eight pumps that could empty the basin in four to five hours. The caisson itself took 24 men working hand pumps 90 minutes to drain.

That old wood caisson is long gone, and even its 1901 steel replacement was replaced in 2015. And today’s pumps are diesel-powered. But though the dock’s technology has changed over 184 years, its basic principles remain the same. “It’s like with any tools,” Desy said. “We still use planes and saws; it’s just that we plug them in.”

Check out the time-lapse video of Constitution entering the dry dock in 2015:

Plugging in

Just as the pumps have been updated, the means and methods of restoring the ship itself have kept pace with the times. For Constitution’s current round of renovation, a naval architect used computer-assisted drawing (CAD) software to redraw plans for the work, make precise measurements, and document the project.


This CAD drawing shows the spar and rigging plan for Constitution as she will be rigged at the end of the 2015-2017 restoration. (Photo courtesy of the Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston)

The 3D virtual model is a far cry from the quill pen that Joshua Humphreys used to design the Navy’s first six frigates in the 1790s. (A frigate, by the way, is a war vessel with at least three masts and one covered gun deck. It’s also a fun thing to say aloud, especially when you’ve given up on something.)

And whereas 18th-century loggers seemed to have their pick of trees from an infinite supply—the thick wild woods that covered most of the East Coast—modern timber concerns know to practice sustainable forestry. Indeed, there’s a grove in Indiana devoted solely to timber for the Constitution. To procure the white oak timber for the ship’s hull planking, the Navy set aside 150 white oak trees in the forest around a naval facility in Crane, Indiana. “Constitution Grove” was dedicated in 1976.


White oak delivery in Charlestown. (Photo courtesy of the Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston/Margherita M. Desy)

“It’s a managed forest,” said Desy. “As the trees grow, their lower branches are trimmed and each tree is allowed a lot of sunlight. Because, to qualify as trees for Constitution, they have to be at least 45 feet in length from base to crown, and at least 40 inches in diameter at the base.” In 2015, thirty-five of the trees were felled, and eventually 350,000 pounds of white oak were delivered to Charlestown.

Here we should point out that “Old Ironsides” is just a nickname, earned when cannon balls bounced off her hardwood hull. It was sturdy New England white oak and dense, rot-resistant live oak from Georgia—not iron—that repelled the attacks. However, below the water line, the frigate’s hull has always been sheathed in copper, to keep out wood-eating shipworm. In fact, master metalworker Paul Revere imported an innovation from England (by way of a little industrial espionage) when he opened our nation’s first copper rolling mill to provide the Constitution’s second copper coating, in 1803.

Another innovative tool used in today’s restoration work is the Gemini Universal Carving Duplicator in the Charlestown Navy Yard’s restoration workshop. The decorative carvings along the ship’s bow—like much of the ship—have been replaced time and again. The most recent set (based on earlier drawings and models) dated to 1930. To produce a new set, carpenter Josh Ratty used the Gemini duplicator to trace the 1930 carvings with a blunt stylus hooked up to a router that mimics its motion, making the real cuts in fresh planks.

“It’s like a manual 3D printer,” said USS Constitution Museum spokesman David Wedemeyer. Check out Ratty and the duplicator in action:

The Constitution wraps up its current phase of restoration next month. Still seaworthy, still officially in service, she’s the oldest vessel in the world still capable of sailing under her own power. But rather than sail off into the Atlantic after leaving dry dock, she’ll stay at the Charlestown Navy Yard, where generations of Americans can continue to enjoy visiting her and hearing her stories.

Special thanks to the U.S.S. Constitution Museum and the Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston. There’s plenty more info about the restoration work on the detachment’s blog. And consider a visit to the Charlestown Navy Yard this summer. (Note to our readers in California: you get your own dose of tall ships in September! See

P.S. Safety being a prime focus here at Suffolk, we especially appreciated the following PSAs posted at the Charlestown Navy Yard…

2017-05-17 12.10.03 Ouch crop

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Content Writer Patrick L. Kennedy. If you have questions, Patrick can be reached at You can connect with him on LinkedIn here or follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart. 

Throwback Thursday: Water Under the Bridge, Danger Under the Water

This blog post was written by Dan Antonellis in honor of Brooklyn Bridge Opening Day, which was Wednesday! After 14 years of construction, the Brooklyn Bridge opened to traffic on May 24, 1883, connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn for the first time in history. Dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world,” the bridge changed New York City forever.

Fill a bathtub with water and find a drinking glass. Flip the glass upside down and push it to the bottom of the tub. The water from the tub won’t get inside the glass because of the air trapped inside. It’s about air pressure, physics and other science-related topics I won’t even attempt to explain in this post.

Now stay with me. Picture tiny people standing inside that glass on the bottom of the tub, chipping away at the porcelain with miniature picks and shovels. The air in that glass will eventually run out, so you’ll need a tube poking out of the top of the glass and up and out of the water so that good air can come in and bad air can get out. After all, these tiny people need to breathe as they continue picking away and digging at the bottom of your tub.

Holding a glass upside down at the bottom of the bathtub is the basic premise behind one of the most intriguing and dangerous feats in U.S. engineering and construction history — the building of the underwater foundations that would lie at the bottom of New York’s East River and support the massive towers of the historic Brooklyn Bridge.

The Great Bridge

The vision for “The Great Bridge” (later named the Brooklyn Bridge) was simple enough — to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn and open travel and trade between the two independent cities. (Brooklyn was its own city until it was annexed by New York City in 1898.) The bridge would eventually span 1,600 feet across the river, connecting two masses of land that had been separated by water for millions of years.


An early plan for the Brooklyn Bridge. (Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

The Brooklyn Bridge was designed like most suspension bridges. While they differ aesthetically and hold distinct places in history, they all share certain visual and engineering characteristics in common. Cables that stretch from bridge towers to the highways like giant spider webs. Roads seemingly suspended in air — many of which can span from 2,000 to 7,000 feet long. And of course, the massive towers that stand tall and strong, anchoring the bridge components to the earth and literally holding it all together. Those towers need to be firmly grounded and dug into bedrock, like any other tall structure.

Back in 1869, long before the days of pounding piles into the ground using sophisticated equipment and heavy machinery, there were men, picks and shovels. And plenty of danger to go around. Continue Reading ›

A building’s skin and bones—literally? The coming world of engineered living materials

When lightning strikes, a tree can often repair the damage by generating another layer of bark to cover the gash. But if that same bolt from above lashes a wood-frame house instead, call the remodelers. Even though the house’s exterior walls are essentially made of trees, the material lost its adaptive quality when lumberjacks felled those mighty pines or oaks.

In the words of scientist Justin Gallivan of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), wood is “rendered inert” when a tree is chopped down. That neutralizes all the advantages of a living material. In their natural state, trees react and adapt to wounds and the weather. So do coral reefs—not to mention your own skin.

What if living materials, with those same self-healing properties, could be grown artificially to the size and strength required to construct a house? Or a skyscraper? Is that possible? That’s what DARPA wants to find out. The agency is soliciting research proposals aimed at the creation of what it calls “engineered living materials (ELM).”


DARPA envisions walls that fix themselves, non-fading surfaces, and driveways that absorb oil spills without a trace. (Source: DARPA)

“Imagine that instead of shipping finished materials, we can ship precursors and rapidly grow them on site using local resources,” Gallivan said to the press in August when announcing the ELM program. “And, since the materials will be alive, they will be able to respond to changes in their environment and heal themselves in response to damage.”

Today, a building’s envelope is often called its “skin,” while the steel frame of a building is known as its skeletal structure, or even its “bones.” In DARPA’s imagined future, these terms will cease to be merely rhetorical. And the sustainability benefits of bio-building might be substantial, when you consider the carbon emissions generated in the production of conventional materials such as concrete.

But DARPA didn’t pull this sci-fi-sounding concept out of thin air. Biochemists and engineers around the globe are already tinkering with limited forms of biomimetic (or life-imitating) materials, as you’ll see below. Gallivan’s vision of self-healing living walls is perhaps the logical extension of these various technologies, and the ELM program might prove the catalyst needed for skin-and-bone to replace brick-and-mortar.

Bacteria brickyard

One inspiration for the ELM program is a start-up that grows bricks in a lab. Yes, grows. The idea occurred to architect Ginger Dosier when she learned that coral polyps—tiny marine animals—create the hard, rocklike substance sandstone naturally. She co-founded the company, bioMASON, with her husband, Michael—like her, an architect and a self-taught scientist. (They have help from a staff of college-taught scientists.)


The lab-grown bricks. (Source: bioMASON)

In their lab in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, the bioMASON team places sand into molds and injects it with trillions of microorganisms (Sporosarcina pasteurii, if you must know), which they feed water and a calcium solution. The bacteria bind with the grains of sand, generating a natural cement that becomes heavy and hardens. The bricks are ready in two to five days.

Compare that with the way traditional bricks are manufactured, by digging up clay (which could be better put to use in agricultural soil) and firing it in a kiln at 2,000 degrees for three to five days. This process uses up lots of fuel and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—800 million tons of it per year, by some estimates. Keep in mind, brick is still the most common building material worldwide, with Asia alone making 1.2 trillion bricks a year.

According to Acorn Innovestments, which provided bioMASON with seed funds, third-party testing determined that the bio-bricks have a strength comparable to traditional masonry, though for now, the start-up is only selling the bricks for use in paving. The bioMASON lab can produce 1,500 bricks a week, and they’re moving next month to a larger facility that will enable them to make 5,000 bricks every two days.

But the Dosiers hope to truly make an impact by shipping the bacteria solution—just one hand-held vial can make 500 bricks—across the globe to builders who can mix it with local sand, whether from nearby deserts (looking at you, Los Angeles) or quarries. Continue Reading ›

Throwback Thursday: Turning the first sod

As work begins on the expansion of Suffolk Construction’s headquarters—which was celebrated with a high-tech virtual groundbreaking—we explore the ancient roots, and some colorful examples, of the groundbreaking tradition.

Like knocking on wood, crossing your heart, or crossing the street to avoid a black cat (particularly around Halloween), there are some rituals—rooted in antiquity, maybe in prehistory—that most of us carry on to this day, whether or not we consider ourselves superstitious.

So it is with the time-honored tradition of the construction-site groundbreaking ceremony. Just as a shipbuilder wouldn’t launch a craft without first smashing a champagne bottle on its prow, a developer might feel amiss were a structure to rise without a gathering of dignitaries and a plunging of shovels into earth at some early stage of the project. In a few cases, dynamite, sledgehammers, airplanes, or green smoke have been used to liven up the proceedings, as you’ll see below.

The precise origins of the groundbreaking—better known in previous decades as the “sod turning” or “turning the first spadeful of earth”—are obscured by the mists of time, but the ritual exists in nearly all cultures the globe over. In some ancient traditions, breaking the ground was considered an act painful to the earth, requiring a sacrifice to compensate. To take one gruesome example, centuries ago the Tlingit people of Alaska would kill slaves and bury them under the corner post of a new longhouse.

Less horrifying religious rites persist to this day. In India, homebuilders ask permission from Bhoomi (Mother Earth) before disturbing her. To restore equilibrium to the site, an elaborate series of rituals includes burying a box containing gold, silver, coriander seeds, a whole betel nut, and a stick of turmeric, among other items carrying significance.

In the same way, Japanese builders placate the local kami, or god of the land, and pray for the safety of the construction workers with a Shinto purification rite, known as a jichinsai. A priest marks off a sacred space with four bamboo poles and sets up an altar with offerings of food and sake, or rice wine, which is poured on the four corners of the construction site. Wooden tools are then used to break ground.


An altar used during a Shinto rite to purify a construction site.

In the 1960s, a city assemblyman charged that this spectacle, at the site of a public gymnasium, violated the nation’s constitution (which, like ours, provides for the separation of church and state). The case went all the way to Japan’s supreme court, which found that the civic ceremony did not promote or subsidize the Shinto religion.

In Western nations, too, it’s been common in modern times for developers to invite priests or other clergy to offer a prayer or otherwise take part in a groundbreaking, despite our generally secular public life. As in Japan, old customs die hard. Besides, a little blessing can’t hurt!

And maybe builders should be a bit superstitious. The Panama Canal was initially, in the 1880s, a French undertaking. Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, in our terms the project executive, attempted a bicoastal ceremony: He turned the first sod on the Atlantic end of the planned canal, then traveled by train and boat to the Pacific end. But stormy seas—or too much champagne, according to one account—prevented de Lesseps from landing. He scheduled another ceremony, in which exploding dynamite would kick off the project, but the charge fizzled.

So did the project. That first canal effort ended in failure; the Americans later picked up where the French had left off.

Dynamite was used successfully to inaugurate the Long Island Parkway in New York in 1908 (“a stick of dynamite blew high in the air an impeding tree,” wrote one observer) and the Massachusetts Turnpike in 1962. (“I only wish some of my critics were sitting on top of that ledge,” said turnpike planner William F. Callahan before pressing the plunger and dissolving the offending ledge in a burst of green smoke.)


Source: The Boston Globe

In Boston in the 1970s, the Lewis Wharf condo development began with a “water-breaking,” in which a huge anchor was lifted from the harbor, and one hotel owner let his 20-month-old granddaughter commence a project with a “sand-turning” in a sandbox.

For ceremonies in California, skydivers have floated to earth bearing golden shovels, and “a two-story replica of a personal computer emerged from the ground in a high-tech industrial park,” according to the L.A. Times. The mayor of Brea once started a project with a backhoe; the machine lurched wildly, scattering the assemblage.

Suffolk Construction Breaks Ground on HeadquartersHow far has the ritual come since the days of human sacrifice, or even green smoke? Pretty far, to judge by the virtual groundbreaking at Suffolk’s headquarters expansion (left). Boston Mayor Marty Walsh joined Suffolk executives in donning virtual-reality headsets and scooping dirt that existed only in a 3D video-game-style environment—visible to those wearing the goggles, and projected as well on a large screen for the benefit of the audience. With each shovelful of pixelated earth, a 3D model of the building-to-be would rise from the ground in stages, as if by magic.

As far as we know, this is the first time a virtual groundbreaking has been done. Can anyone tell us different? Or offer your own unusual or innovative takes on the ceremony? Let’s hear your comments!

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Content Writer Patrick L. Kennedy. If you have questions, Patrick can be reached at You can connect with him on LinkedIn here or follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart.

How to build your Martian dream house

Some day, humans will live on Mars. That’s the vision of some of today’s highest-profile forward-thinkers. This week, in an op-ed for CNN, President Barack Obama wrote that he hopes America will send humans safely to Mars and back by the 2030s. And late last month, SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced plans to colonize Mars within the next 50 to 100 years, with the help of the most powerful rocket ever, sending up a reusable spaceship that could carry a hundred humans at a time to the Red Planet.

But once the expat Earthlings land, what kind of structures will they live in? Scientists are working on myriad answers to that question (among others). One major obstacle to homebuilding on Mars is the limited capacity of any realistic spacecraft to carry all the materials needed to erect substantial, durable habitats. Ideally, the pioneers would use local materials, just as early European settlers in North America chopped down pines to build log cabins. With no forests on Mars, what can 21st-century space settlers use?

Frosty reception

There is water on Mars—most of it frozen. That’s one of the attractions that make the fourth rock from the sun a good candidate for colonization. (It also has an atmosphere to absorb radiation, a surface temperature range that could be bearable with the right protective gear, and a day/night cycle similar to ours at 24 hours, 37 minutes.)


Source: Mars Ice House

So when NASA held its 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge last fall, one team of designers tapped H20 as its substance of choice to fabricate homes. Team Space Exploration Architecture (SEArch) and Clouds AO topped 165 entrants with their design, Ice House. The design takes a page from Alaska’s Inuit people, who for centuries have built temporary shelters out of snow during hunting expeditions. Envisioning a settlement in Mars’ northern climes, the NASA competition winners proposed that frozen water be harvested from the subsurface and run through a massive 3D printer to craft a sleek shell of ice that would cover the astronauts’ lander (which would serve as the living quarters), sealing it in a pressurized, habitable environment. Then another, still larger ice shell would be created to cover the first, not unlike a Russian nesting doll.


Source: Mars Ice House

The multi-layered setup is designed for redundancy—you’d probably feel safer with a backup shell, wouldn’t you?—but the general purpose of the ice shell is to give the colonists a kind of artificial yard: they could obtain a feeling of being outdoors without having to suit up and venture out into the planet’s harsh environment. That’s because the translucent outer ice shell, while repelling cosmic rays, would let in sunlight, something vital to the colonists’ food garden, not to mention their sanity. And with temps in the region (Alba Mons) consistently below freezing, the shell would stand year-round without melting.

But what if the explorers wanted to conserve that water for other uses, like drinking it? Continue Reading ›

Throwback Thursday: Rebar in old-time ballparks

As baseball fans in New York, Tampa Bay and other American League East towns are painfully aware, the Boston Red Sox have clinched the division title. Naturally, being builders, we got to thinking about the team’s ancient home, Fenway Park (above). Built in 1912, it belongs to the first generation of sports stadiums constructed of steel-reinforced concrete, a material gaining widespread acceptance in the wake of San Francisco’s devastating earthquake of 1906. Other examples include Stanford Stadium (1921) and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (1923) in California, and of course the original Yankee Stadium (1923) in New York (pictured below).yankee_stadium1920s

Believe it or not, when crews erected Fenway’s “spacious grandstand” (as the Globe called it then and nobody does now), the process was so cutting-edge that the local Society of Civil Engineers visited to observe (below). Nevertheless, much of the project’s construction practices seem outdated today.

For example, carpenters built the formwork for the columns and deck slab out of oak timber, according to Glenn Stout, a former concrete foreman and the author of a history of the park’s construction. “They had to do everything with wood,” Stout said in an interview. “They didn’t use plywood back then; they used wooden planks—usually oak, which was readily available.” In fact, you can still see the marks of wood grain on the concrete in some places.fenway3a

Today, said Fred Collins of Liberty Construction, formwork is typically a composite of plywood and steel—a modular steel frame, with plywood facing. “For efficiency, for speed,” said Collins, who is Liberty’s northeast regional general superintendent of concrete field operations. “It enables you to pour larger quantities of concrete.”

The pouring process in 1912 was different, too. As Stout wrote in his book:

Unlike today, concrete was not mixed and then hauled to the site by truck. Instead a concrete plant was built on-site [where] cement, sand and an aggregate of crushed stone and water were mixed together [then dumped] into a concrete dump bucket. The wet concrete was hoisted to the appropriate place and the concrete emptied into wheeled sidecars . . . essentially wheelbarrows, but with much larger wheels and a much greater capacity.


Wrigley Field, an early reinforced-concrete stadium, under construction, circa 1914. (Photo courtesy of 

Workers then “manhandled” these wheelbarrows into place and, “where possible, simply dumped the concrete onto the deck [then] raked it into place and agitated the concrete to remove any air bubbles,” Stout wrote. Where the deck sloped, the mix was “dumped into chutes, and workers then had to force the concrete down manually, using shovels not unlike canoe paddles.”

It was dirty, dangerous work, Stout added. A scratch from the rebar carried the threat of tetanus. “Shoulders and arms ached from the burden of shoveling the heavy mixture, which typically weighed 150 pounds per cubic foot. . . . For this, the workers earned perhaps fifty cents an hour.” Continue Reading ›

Throwback Thursday: “Taking your brass”

Whether it’s sharing your all-time favorite Atari video game or a photo of your sister’s second birthday party, Thursdays have given us all the opportunity to proudly throw it back. So in honor of Throwback Thursdays, we will occasionally post about antiquated, and sometimes comical, construction methods that have given way to some of the biggest innovations in our industry. Please share your Throwback Thursday ideas in the comment section at the bottom of this post! 


Anyone who worked construction before or during the 1960s and 70s probably has tangible memories of plucking a brass tag off a wooden pegboard when they arrived on a job site. Back in the day, general contractors employed tradesmen directly and the daily ritual known as “taking your brass” was how the GC tracked everyone’s hours.

The tradesmen each had a tag with a number on it that corresponded to the number on their hardhat. After the workers pocketed their tags each morning, the time keeper would record the missing tags. Starting at 3:30 p.m., the timekeeper would return to the board to note the time each tag was returned so he could log how long everyone worked and how much they should be paid.

On payday, a line formed in front of an armored car that doled out wages … in cash!

Suffolk Construction General Superintendent Roy Greenhalgh coordinated  brass-tag systems early in his career before he joined Suffolk. He said some people would have their friend pick up their tag if they were going to be late or miss work. “But we always had someone watching the board,” Greenhalgh said. “It usually worked out pretty well. It was just a lot of work, there were no copy machines, we had no fax machine and everything was calculated by hand.”

On Wednesday nights, the project’s onsite timekeeper, accountant and office manager would stay until 8 or 9 p.m. calculating the payroll. The hardest part, Greenhalgh said, was doing math by hand to deduct union dues and taxes.

At the time, unions stipulated that workers had to be paid in cash. So on smaller jobs, the accountant would go to the bank first thing Thursday morning and bring cash back to the job site, where they would stuff envelopes for each worker. On larger jobs, they reported the earnings to the bank and waited for the armored car to arrive. “There was no other way to do it,” Greenhalgh said. “That was the way it was done. We spent the time to make sure it was right and make sure everybody got paid.”

The brass tag system was eventually abolished in the 70s when the unions abandoned their cash payment rule. At that point the foremen simply tracked everyone’s time each day and walked the site to distribute paper checks on payday. Eventually computers streamlined the process in the mid 80s. Today, foremen still track time but most workers are paid via direct deposit.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe we relied on brass tags for one of the most important transactions in our industry. Thinking about logging all those hours and doing the payroll by hand is like having that nightmare where you’re back in your college stats class. And the armored car! Well, that story is just the perfect TBT.

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Content Writer Justin Rice with input from Northeast General Superintendent Roy Greenhalgh. If you have questions, Justin can be reached at or follow him on Twitter at @JustinAlanRice.