Tracking History

By LOIS PUGLIONESI , For The Times Herald 08/25/2003


Legendary ghosts of Irish railroad workers prompt professor's investigation

William Watson never thought much about ghosts or believed they could move him. But the legend of 57 Irish railroad workers buried in a common grave has haunted the Media resident and college professor since the day he learned the story of Duffy's Cut.

Watson, chairman of history and politics at Immaculata University, has studied the official railroad file of the tragedy. He unexpectedly came upon the documents last year among his grandfather's artifacts. He also has read with interest accounts of ghost sightings at the site of the mass grave on the Main Line.
The tragic tale concerns 57 Irish railroad workers whose work site became their gravesite in the early 1800s, during a little known chapter in local history.
Located along a stretch of railroad track west of Malvern, Duffy's Cut takes its name from a contractor named Duffy who hired a group of newly arrived Irish immigrants in the summer of 1832. Their labor was needed to clear a path through hilly terrain, making way for the westbound tracks of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, horse-drawn at the time.
Watson suspects the men were single, perhaps "extra" sons not in line to inherit the family estate who came to America in search of work and opportunity.
"But their American dream lasted no more than six weeks," said Watson's colleague, Irish history Professor John Ahtes.
Before the summer was over a horrible fate befell them. Living in a large shanty beside a ravine, all 57 became victims of a cholera epidemic that swept through the Delaware Valley that year, taking 900 lives and causing widespread panic.
A bacterial infection, cholera is usually contracted from contaminated water. The harrowing symptoms include acute vomiting and diarrhea, with subsequent dehydration and sometimes death. There were no effective treatments in the early 1800s.
The workmen turned to nearby residents for help when the scourge first struck, but according to now deceased local historian Julian F. Sachses the fear of contagion was so great "every house was closed against fugitives, no one was found willing to give them food or shelter."
Only the contractor's blacksmith, name unknown, and several Sisters of Charity sent from Philadelphia braved exposure to minister to the sick. But without proper treatment the Irishmen soon succumbed and the blacksmith was left the grim task of dragging their bodies across the ravine and burying them in a ditch he dug himself, without a proper funeral. (Even more gruesome, Ahtes suspects some of the men may have been in a death-like coma from severe dehydration when buried.)
Watson and Ahtes suspect anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment prevalent at the time factored into the community's deplorable response. St. Mary's Church was set on fire the previous year in New York, and riots in which 150 Irish were killed broke out in Philadelphia in the 1840s. Even the Sisters were forced to walk back to Philadelphia without food or water following their mission of mercy at Duffy's Cut.
Watson believes the railroad tried to cover up the entire incident. Because the men weren't citizens, no death certificates were ever filed. Work resumed that winter without further acknowledgment of the atrocity.
But the story of Duffy's Cut was never buried.
The site earned an eerie reputation through tales of supernatural encounters and ghostly apparitions that lived on in local legend and lore.
Sachse wrote, "It is a matter of fact that for years the immediate locality was shunned by many residents of the vicinity under the belief that the spot was haunted, and many gruesome tales were told of ghostly sights, which it was claimed were seen in the hollow by the roadside."

Ghostly visions

The most vivid account appears in an interview Sachse conducted with an elderly resident in 1889. This resident insisted he had seen the Irishmens' ghosts dancing on their grave as he walked along the tracks one night, about a month after they died.
"It's true Mister, it was awful. They looked as if they were a kind of green and blue fire, and there they were a hopping and bobbing on their graves. ... I was too scared to run, and there I stood a knocking my knees together and the ghosts advancing and groaning all the time." And rest assured, the gentleman insisted that he "hadn't been drinking no whiskey either."
Sometime in the 1870s, after the Philadelphia Columbia Railroad was purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad, workers who knew the legend of Duffy's Cut took up the cause of the unfortunate crew. A group raised enough money to install a fence around the area where they believed the bodies were buried, and the railroad tried to maintain it for some time.
By 1909, however, the wood had deteriorated, and then assistant supervisor Martin Clement had a square stone enclosure built as a more permanent memorial, which remains there to this day.
Clement, who later became president of the company, was extremely interested in the story. He created a file on Duffy's Cut, (No. 004.01 "C") which contains correspondence, articles, inquiries, and memos.
Clement's assistant, the late Joseph Tripician, was allowed to keep the file when PRR merged with New York Central Railroad in 1968 to become Penn Central. Tripician was Watson's grandfather.
Although it was in his family for many years, Watson didn't discover the file until recently, while going through memorabilia with his brother Frank in August 2002.
He became mesmerized by the story and the site's proximity to Immaculata's campus-only minutes away.
Watson, his brother Frank and a friend named Tom Conner, all members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, searched the area until they located the 3 foot high, 8 x 8 foot redoubt that marks the grave. Once wild and rocky, shaded by mountain laurel and rhododendron, the site currently abuts two condo developments -Sugartown Ridge and Erin's Glen.
One of Watson's gravest concerns, however, is that this unfortunate group of Irishmen may actually lie beneath the tracks of the R-5 commuter line.

A shift of the tracks

According to at least one article, by Alden W. Quimby of Berwyn from 1909, the railroad realigned the tracks in the 1880s to smooth out the Sugartown Curve. An elderly farmer told Quimby that "the unmarked graves, unknown to the constructors were covered by the new roadbed." This resident thought the original fence was mistakenly placed around a mound left "by the extraction of a huge stump."
"For almost every minute ponderous trains roll and rumble over the real resting place of the cholera victims," the farmer added somberly.
Watson has an old Pennsylvania Railroad comparative lines map that verifies the man's story. According to Pennsylvania State law, "no bodies can be permitted to lie under any existing structure," Watson said. "Forensic archaeologists could tell whether this is the case."
Watson sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Historical Commission last February, describing the situation and suggesting that a state historical marker be placed on King Street in Malvern to properly commemorate the Irishmen. He also wants to "investigate their whereabouts with an eye to perhaps re-interring them in consecrated ground."
"I know they'd want that. That's what I'd want. It seems like it has to be done," Watson said. "What happened isn't moral."
Such an investigation would also provide definitive evidence concerning details of the story.
The East Whitemarsh Historical Commission, for example, posted a sign acknowledging the site several years ago. It states that the men died of Black Diptheria in 1834 and that nuns and mules are buried there as well. Watson learned EWHC had scant information from a newspaper article published a half-century ago about a man who was searching for the graves.
In addition to outrage, sympathy, and a sense of kinship, Watson is driven by what he now thinks may have been a first-hand encounter with the Irishmen's restive spirits.
He and Connor claim they had a strange experience while returning from a piping engagement in Lancaster on a rainy September night in 2000, when they made a rest stop at Immaculata before heading home. (Both play bagpipes in full Celtic attire at Irish gatherings, and have done so for over two decades.)
Conner said he was looking out a window on the lower level of the Faculty Center, when he noticed odd lights shining on the lawn. "What am I looking at?" he asked Watson. "Probably lawn art," Watson said of the elongated glowing shapes in staggered formation outside.
But as they watched, the radiance suddenly vanished and the scene outside the window went dark. "It was then we got really scared," Watson said. They searched the area thoroughly, but there were no lamps or streetlights that could
have been a source of the strange iridescence, Conner said.
"I don't know what we saw. It was there and vanished. I don't believe in ghosts or aliens. But I do believe there could be some attempt to reach out," Watson said. "Tom and I were wearing kilts and full piping attire. In a flight of fancy one might wonder if some of those men who died nearby so tragically 168 years earlier came out across the fields to 'connect' with fellow Celts wearing kilts near the anniversary of their demise."
And like the elderly resident in Sasche's interview, Watson solemnly stated he hadn't any whiskey either.

Professor William Watson is circulating a petition in support of establishing a historical marker in Malvern to commemorate the 57 Irishmen who died at Duffy's Cut.


To sign the petition or make inquiries, contact: Dr. William Watson, Chairman, Dept. of History and Politics, Immaculata University, 21 Faculty Center, Immaculata, PA 19345, (610) 647-4400, X3491,

Mystery Deaths of 19th Century Rail Workers
By Sean O'Driscoll
      A CORONER and district attorney are standing by in Pennsylvania as two history professors prepare to dig up 57 Irish railroad workers who they believe were murdered by 19th century anti-Irish bigots.
      The Pennsylvania Police Emerald Society has now pitched in to protect the mass gravesite and is negotiating with Amtrak to allow for more tests on the land where the men are buried.
     Under Pennsylvania law, a coroner and district attorney's office must be contact in suspicious death cases -- even ones that are more than 170 years old.
     Two history professors at Immaculata University in Pennsylvania have made a detailed study of the case, and believe that a railroad corporation may have destroyed files on the deaths to stop the truth from emerging.
     The 57, who died in 1832, are officially listed as cholera victims, but the railroad corporation hid the records for decades.
     The project has become a passion for professors William Watson and John Ahtes of Immaculata College, who have made a huge search of state and national records to uncover the men's identities. A Pennsylvania cemetery has volunteered individual graveyard spaces for all the men when their bodies are exhumed, and Irish graduate students have also been recruited to investigate the men's backgrounds.
     According to Watson, anti-Irish feeling was very strong at the time and the Irish were being blamed for spreading cholera.
     A group of vigilantes was roaming Pennsylvania looking for Irish to attack, particularly when the fear of cholera gripped the wider public in 1832.
     Watson said he believed the Pennsylvania and Columbia Railroad Company might have covered up the deaths to stop bad publicity, and to ensure that Irish workers were not frightened off from building more railroads.
     The office of Rodger Rothenberger, coroner for Chester County where the mass grave is located, confirmed that they had been informed of the research and would help to investigate the causes of the men's deaths.
     The 57 are buried at a site called Duffy's Cut, named after an Irish-born foreman who arranged work for the men only weeks before their deaths.
     Watson said he has convinced that the railroad company had hidden the men's deaths from the public.
     "These guys were very deliberately forgotten by the railroad and any record of the men was wiped out," he said.
     "We believe we can put this in the history books and we believe we can find the names of these men. We know that they came in June 1832 directly from Ireland. Now it's a matter of finding out who they were."
     The Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad never publicly released accounts of the disaster, though accounts of troubled ghosts haunting the mass grave have been passed down in local folklore.
     As late as 1909, the mysterious deaths continued to trouble the rail company. Its then president, Martin Clement, had a stone enclosure built around a nearby site where he believed the men were buried.
     However, he refused to have a memorial built. He also ordered all available information on the men to be taken away and stored in his office.
     Watson believes that Clement, a wealthy man with political ambition, was worried that the scandal might damage the rail company's reputation.
     However, Watson's grandfather, Joseph Tripician, was Clement's assistant and kept the file. Watson discovered it two years ago and became intrigued by the story.
     Watson said that that he still gets choked up when he thinks of the men's lives, and would like to find out their names before they are buried.
     The pair believe they have uncovered the identity of Phillip Duffy, the men's foreman, who appeared to care little for the fate of his men.
     "We believe that Phillip Duffy is from Tipperary," said Watson.
      "We have a document saying that a Philip Duffy came in (to the U.S) after the war of 1812 and we believe this is our man. It's now a matter of time to go through the records and find young men who might have been recruited at the docks by Duffy.
     "We are flushing out his story as well. These men were expendable to him. He didn't care if these men lived and died. It's just incredible," he said.

Philadelphia dig uncovers evidence of Irish workers
By Ray O'Hanlon
This story appeared in the issue of November 10-16, 2004 Irish Echo.

Make no bones about it, the past is buried here. But that past has yet to turned up any bones. However, the archeological team carrying out excavation work beside a Philadelphia suburban rail line are uncovering considerable evidence pointing to this place as being the spot where 57 Irish railroad workers worked and died in 1832.
      Dr. William Watson of Immaculata University is leading the effort to find out whether the workers died of cholera or, in some cases, from deliberate negligence or violence from local vigilante groups.
      "We've found, incredibly, a piece of the track from 1832. It's very small and narrow and heavy," Watson said.
"We've recovered a lot of artifacts by means of metal detectors, including a belt buckle, a coin, pickaxes and all kinds of spikes and nails."
      The artifacts are being shipped to Pennsylvania's railroad museum near Starsburg for further examination.
      But what the slow-moving excavation is really searching for are the remains of the Irish rail workers.
      "No bones yet but we're confident we're going to find them," Watson said.
      The burial site, in a place known as "Duffy's Cut" covers roughly an acre. The exact whereabouts of the remains of the Irish workers within the boundaries of the site is unknown, so the excavation will cover the entire area in some detail and also be extended to surrounding ground. The dig period is expected to last well into the fall.
      Watson believes that some of the Irish workers might have been buried alive during the stage of cholera known as cold cholera. During this stage of the disease, it is possible to appear dead, though the individual is still alive.
      He also suspects that some may have been murdered by local vigilante groups violently hostile toward Irish immigrants.
      So far, however, the discoveries have all been of man-made items rather than the remains of men.
      "We've also found pitchforks and a cooking pot from the period," he said. "It was buried one-and-a-half feet down and looked like it had been crafted by a blacksmith."
      Separate to the excavation at Duffy's Cut, Watson and is team have been attempting to trace the arrival of the rail workers through shipping records for the port of Philadelphia.
      "We've uncovered records for the arrivals of eight ships in Philadelphia at the time, all carrying immigrants for Ireland," he said.
      Most of the immigrants were natives of counties Tyrone, Derry and Donegal. "Almost all of the arrivals were skilled workers. Just one of the ships carried unskilled laborers," Watson said.
      It was a barque called the "John Stamp." Most of its passengers were from Donegal and Tyrone.
      Watson believes it was this vessel that carried the ultimately doomed Irish rail workers across the Atlantic.
      Looking deeper into the records, Watson said he would now be attempting to put names to the dead buried at Duffy's Cut.
      Remains uncovered at the dig site will be studied by the county coroner's office and possibly by a cultural anthropologist from Ireland.
      There is also the possibility that facial reconstruction might be carried out if intact skulls are recovered.
      If all goes according to Watson's plan, the anonymous dead of Duffy's Cut will become known anew to a world that once paid them the scantest regard.