What Happened to the Irish Railroad Workers at Duffy's Cut?
The nineteenth century was a period of rapid change. Industrialization brought great improvements in modernity while it simultaneously exploited workers in the lower classes. Charles Dickens was one of many who criticized this age in his writing, bringing to light the atrocities that took place right under society’s collective nose. The opening lines from his 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities describes this era well:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Although his novel was set during the French Revolution, Dickens makes it clear that these words also describe his own age – the nineteenth century.
And, of course, many of unfortunate happenings occurring during this period in Britain, such as child labor and poor working conditions, were also occurring in America.
Immigrants to America often faced prejudice and discrimination, and this was especially true of Irish Catholics who settled in the largely Protestant United States.
History has painted a picture that largely focused on immigrant success stories. But, sadly, there were many who left Britain in search of a better life in America only to find themselves in conditions and situations that were no better than what they left behind.
One example of this is the story of the Irish railway workers who died at Duffy’s Cut.
The story begins when a group of Irishmen immigrate to the United States in search of work. They head to Philadelphia and are immediately recruited for railroad work by Philip Duffy. Duffy was an Irish-American businessman who had been contracted in 1831 to build Mile 59 of the Philadelphia and Columbia railway line.
The men, and one woman, were taken to Chester County, 30 miles outside Philadelphia, to construct the railroad. Duffy’s Cut is thus named as it is the part of the track laid by Duffy’s Irish workmen.
This particular mile was said to be one of the toughest stretches on the line, and the work was grueling. The rail line had been underway for a couple of years already. Duffy’s main source of labor were the young and single Irish men recruited at the docks, some of whom he would shelter in his own home. Many of these men were likely Gaelic speaking and from rural areas of Ireland.
In the summer of 1832 a cholera epidemic spread through the area. Today we know that cholera is spread by contaminated water sources. But, this was unknown in the early 19th century. That along with heavy prejudice against immigrants caused nearby townspeople to view rail workers as pests.
So, when a number of workers fell ill, they were shunned and denied treatment in town. An unknown number of these workmen were laid up in a shanty near the worksite while they convalesced, tended to by only the on site blacksmith and some kindhearted local nuns.
When the disease had passed over the area, the official report stated that eight men had died. They were quickly buried in a shallow gravesite beside the worksite, and the surviving workers moved on, continuing to lay the track. Not long after the incident, whispers began circulating among locals that the death toll had been higher than what was officially reported – much higher.
For almost 200 years, the question remained. What happened at Duffy’s Cut? How many men truly died? Why were they so hastily buried without ceremony?
In 2002, William and Frank Watson, a pair of twin brothers, came upon a company file belonging to the Pennsylvania Railroad. Their grandfather had once been the assistant to the president of the Railroad, and this file had been found among his belongings.
Documents within the file described a company investigation that was initiated in 1909 to review the 1832 incident. The cholera outbreak was explored in detail.
The Watsons were amazed to see that while the newspapers had reported only a handful of deaths, the Railroad inquiry revealed the true number to be 57.
At this point, the brothers began to suspect a company cover-up. But, why would the Railroad hide the details of a cholera outbreak? The brothers made it their mission to find out.
In November, 2005, Bill Watson discovered the first artifact at the site – a clay pipe decorated with shamrocks and an Irish harp. This had to be a sign that they were on the right track. The Watson brothers’ project grew from a two man operation to a full scale archaeological dig. They enlisted the help of professional geoscientists, archaeologists, university scientists, and archaeology students, as their search continued on into 2009. It wasn’t until 2009 when a student at the dig site uncovered the first sign of human remains.
In the meantime, efforts have been made to identify the recovered skeletons. This proves difficult, as many of these individuals were not mentioned on census records.
However, they did manage to identify one skeleton. They believe it to be the remains of John Ruddy, who was still in his teenage years when he left Ireland only to meet his death at Duffy’s Cut.
News of the work being done by the Duffy’s Cut team was getting press coverage in Ireland, and multiple families stepped forward to identify themselves as possible family members of John Ruddy. A very rare skeletal defect was observed in John Ruddy’s bones, and, significantly, one of the families also carry the same defect in their lineage.
The bones of John Ruddy were returned to Ireland in the Spring of 2013, to be given a proper burial. He was buried in Donegal, where it is strongly believed he hailed from.
The Watson brothers, both experienced bagpipers, not only attended the funeral but played their pipes in honor of John Ruddy’s journey.
Tears streamed down the cheeks of many in attendance as they imagined what it would have been like for the family who sent their son to America with such high hopes, and then to hear of his death just a few months after his arrival. That is, if they were ever told at all.
Over the course of the Duffy’s Cut excavation, six sets of remains were found.
One skeleton has been identified as a woman, and it is thought that she may have been recruited as a cook and laundress for the workmen.
The rest of the remains are thought to have been reburied at some point in a mass grave, marked only by a sort of stone block enclosure.
Because the enclosure sits on railroad property, and is adjacent to the tracks themselves, the team is not able to excavate without written permission from the railroad who currently owns the land, and which they seem unlikely to receive.
The remaining five individuals were not able to be identified by name, and thus were not returned to Ireland. But, they have been given proper burial in a Pennsylvanian cemetery, attended by the Watson brothers and many of the others who participated with the excavation. Their new grave is marked with a beautiful limestone Celtic cross adorned with the shape of Ireland.
The Watson Brothers' Book
As more and more skeletal remains began to be uncovered, they were examined by a local anthropologist and forensic experts.
What they discovered shocked everyone. Many of these men had been killed by blunt force trauma, and a bullet hole was found in at least one of the skulls. It began to seem that cholera was not the only killer at work at Duffy’s Cut.
Now the Watsons began to understand why the Railroad company would cover this up. Dr. Janet Monge, an anthropologist who examined the remains, was quoted as stating “I actually think it was a massacre.”
But, while the true events that occurred in 1832 are just beginning to unravel, the reason for killing so many men on the worksite is still a mystery.
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© 2015 Carolyn Emerick