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Irish Emigrant Railroad Workes and Cholera

Do you have the new PRENTICE eBook?
Irish Emigrant Railroad Workes and Cholera
By Linus Joseph Dewald Jr., Editor
Spring 2004 and Revised 2004

Although no Prentices are named, we thought the following news item to be of interest in that it reflected the troubles our kin had 150 years ago, whether they were born in America or emigrated to America in that period.

Officials search for mass grave
By Jessica M. McRorie, Staff Writer, 8 Feb 2004

EAST WHITELAND -- On a cold February afternoon, a team of four individuals trekked down a steep, snowy embankment into a small valley in search of a large depression in the ground. They are searching for the mass grave of 57 Irish immigrants dug more than 150 years before. The team, consisting of two Immaculata University history professors, a history department assistant and a Chester County park ranger, worked its way through thick patches of thorny, leafless bushes and low-hung branches. The group made note of at least two spots which could be excavated as soon as this summer.

"Our ultimate goal is to have the men re-interred," said Immaculata University history Professor William Watson. "The objective immediately is to find all evidence of the men." The group made the trip to the site in the wintry weather because it is the only time of year that the barren winter landscape offers a temporary and clear glimpse of the contours of the forest floor, he said. It was just this past winter that the men found a second potential burial site that was obscured from their sight in warmer months by thick tufts of grass and undergrowth.

For years, the woods located north of the intersection of King and Sugartown roads have been in one way or another associated with the story of 57 Irish immigrants who spent a mere six weeks there building a section of railroad tracks before dying of cholera, a bacterial infection typically contracted through contaminated water, said Immaculata history professor John Ahtes. "The local folklore is that there was a grave there containing mules, Irish workers and nuns," said Ahtes. Late 19th-century locals told local historians that "bad things had happened there," he said. "There was some muddled folklore memory in that place of the county that it was a bad or evil place." However, the exact location and exactly what the men are buried with has never been determined, he said, despite the fact various memorials, including a stone structure that currently exists, have been erected over the years in an attempt to commemorate the nameless men.

What is known is that the men were hired in the summer of 1852 by Philip Duffy, who regularly subcontracted out work to immigrants for the Pennsylvania Railroad. The story of the men and their most back-breaking task, to clear and straighten out a portion of the hilly terrain for the train tracks, has come to be known as "Duffy’s Cut."

On Wednesday afternoon, the conversations among the individuals at Duffy’s Cut, who are intent on finding the exact location of the men, didn’t center around the supernatural or the unexplained. Instead, their exchanges sounded more like those made by police and detectives congregating around a crime scene. "There would not have been many witnesses to what happened here," said Immaculata history department assistant Earl Schandelmeier. The one man who might have known and seen what happened was the local blacksmith who lived nearby and buried the bodies, said Watson. "We know he moved the bodies from the west side of the tracks to the east side," said Watson. Much of what is known about the event comes from Pennsylvania Railroad files, old newspaper clippings and local folklore and ghost stories, said Ahtes. "We are trying to flush out the historic memory from that event," said Ahtes.

In order to do just that, the university has been working with the Chester County Parks Department and Regional Park Ranger Bob McAllister to have the area approved as an archeological and historic site, said Watson. McAllister said he first met Watson at a Chester County Emerald Society Meeting where Watson spoke about Duffy’s Cut. "When I listened to him and what he was trying to do, I knew some people in my department who could help," said McAllister. Many Emerald Society members are of Gaelic decent and are either retired or active members of law enforcement personnel. "My ancestry is Irish. My grandparents were born in Ireland and immigrated here," said McAllister. Both Watson and the county Parks Department have plans to get an archeologist to mark a number of potential burial sites at Duffy’s Cut.

By the end of the summer they hope to have an archeologist use a machine that will, in effect, take an X-ray of the ground and hopefully reveal the bones of the men, said Watson. If the bodies of the men are found, Immaculata University officials have stated that they would handle the cost to have the men re-interred in St. Agnes Cemetery, he said. He is also working with Amtrak to have the land donated to the Emerald Society. "With Immaculata and the Emerald Society involved with this it is the best of both worlds," he said.

However, the story of how Watson came to be involved in the research of Duffy’s Cut could have come from another world, he said. After a night of bagpiping, one of Watson’s hobbies, he was at the university and looked out a window and across the field on Sept. 19, 2000, he said. What he saw he described as "neon figures." At the time he dismissed the sighting but later thought it was perhaps the Duffy’s Cut ghosts reaching out to him for help, he said. That was because two years later he discovered that his brother was in possession of old railroad documents collected by their father pertaining to Duffy’s Cut. "It’s crazy. It’s insane. I don’t know what the meaning is," he said. The files formerly belonged to a past president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Martin Clement, who died in 1965, said Watson. "My grandfather was allowed to go into Clement’s files and take whatever he wanted," said Watson. The most interesting page in the file stated that the documents were not to be removed from the office, he said. "That was the first page of the file."

Clement was in the possession of the file for many years but never attempted to erect a proper memorial to the men, he said. In addition, there are documents such as diaries and newspaper articles referenced in the files that cannot be located or, as Watson theorized, were disposed of to protect the railroad. Watson said it is unclear what Clement’s motives were for keeping the file. Both Watson and Schandelmeier said they plan to examine the bones of the dead men if they are located. They are going to look for any trauma to the skulls which would indicate if they were killed with a blunt object such as a shovel. They also plan to look for evidence of gunshot wounds. They said it is a possibility that the men could have been killed for any number of reasons such as simply to avoid paying them their wages or the fear that railroad had the potential to be associated with aiding in the spread of cholera, which in those days, created great fear in people, said Watson. "It’s not hard to believe someone could do that," said Schandelmeier. "You can see there are a lot of question marks in the story."

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