Matt Rourke/AP
Earl Schandelmeier, left, Immaculata University history professor William Watson, right,
and his brother the Rev. Frank Watson, visit the location where they say members of the
Duffy's Cut Project unearthed human remains last week, in Malvern, Pa.

Mass Grave of Irish Railroad Builders Uncovered in Pennsylvania

March 25, 2009 01:58 PM
by Liz Colville
Bones found in Chester County, Pa., are believed to be from some 57 Irish immigrants who came to the United States to work on railroads in 1832.

90 Human Bones Discovered So Far

The bones were found in an excavation on March 20 by an archaeology team led by the Rev. Frank Watson and his twin brother William, a history professor at Immaculata University.

The two started the project in 2002 and named it the Duffy’s Cut Project after Philip Duffy, the Irish immigrant railroad boss whom the men worked for, and the section of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroads they worked on.
The Watsons inherited a document from their grandfather that indicated the location of the burial site of the men. Their grandfather had been the private secretary to the president of the railroad company. The file “also contained stories of ghost sightings of the dead men, specifically three of them dancing on their own graves,” the Philadelphia Inquirer writes.
The dig began in 2004 and since then has revealed “several thousand artifacts including pots, buttons, and smoking pipes” and now, the first human bones, “including two skulls, teeth, and toe and leg bones, which could be remains for as many as four people.”

Records indicate the men had cholera, but they may have died from violence inflicted on them by locals wary of the disease, the BBC reports.

“There was excitement mixed with sadness that these poor men ended up in such an ignominious site, dumped alongside a hillside at Duffy's Cut,” Prof. Watson told the BBC. “What we would hope to do is to return some of the bones of these Irishmen back to their native land.”

The remains “will be catalogued and examined first by the Chester County coroner, then by researchers with the Smithsonian Institution,” according to the Inquirer. “DNA testing will follow, with hopes of matching results with remains of family members in Ireland.”

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Background: The Duffy's Cut mystery

The men had been working on “one of America’s earliest stretches of railroad,” and only spent about six weeks in the country before they died. The Watson brothers found themselves in a “complex detective mystery” and “all-consuming obsession” after uncovering the file in their grandfather’s attic, reports the Smithsonian Channel in a documentary about Duffy’s Cut. They gradually realized the file was a “treasure”—its writer said the file should never leave the railroad company office and recounted the burial location and ghost sightings.

Professor Watson’s research has led him to believe that most of the men died of cholera, “an acute intestinal infection caused by contaminated food or water that typically had a mortality rate of 40% to 60%,” according to the Irish News. But some could have been murdered. “There was general prejudice against Irish Catholics, tension between residents and the transient workers, and a great fear of cholera—especially among the affluent classes,” Watson was quoted as saying by the Irish News.

Learn more about the ongoing research and excavation at the Duffy’s Cut Project Web site.

Reference: Immigrant railroad workers; cholera


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