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In the summer of 1832, 57 Irish laborers died suddenly while building the first railroad in Pennsylvania. Alumnus Bill Watson and a host of other Penn people have been trying to find out what really happened. And they’re getting close.


Think of a jigsaw puzzle, made up of thousands of pieces. It depicts a wooded valley and a tree-lined embankment leading up to a railroad line. Now imagine that it’s three-dimensional, with tulip poplars rising into the sky, their roots reaching deep into the soil for nutrients. Then add another dimension: time, warping back like a Möbius strip into the early 1830s and curving around to the present. Finally (and the staunchly empirical can skip this part), cover it all with a nebulous fabric, which the dead pass through to seek out the living.

Now shake it up and throw the pieces out into the woods. Then try to reassemble them, in the dark.

No one alive knows exactly what happened during that searing August of 1832 in the rough slice of southeastern Pennsylvania known as Duffy’s Cut. This much is clear: 57 Irish laborers who had been constructing a particularly difficult stretch of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad between Malvern and Frazer died suddenly in that rural valley, two months after many of them had arrived in Philadelphia on a ship from Derry. Their bodies were buried hastily in the dirt and gravel fill that would soon support railroad tracks.

For more than 170 years, on the rare occasions that the deaths were mentioned at all, they were attributed to the outbreak of Asiatic cholera that had swept through the region, killing thousands. Now, after several years of poking around and several more of focused digging, it’s become increasingly clear that something more sinister happened as well.

The best way to get to the Duffy’s Cut dig site these days is to park your car on a cul-de-sac in a certain Malvern housing development (tipping your hat to the residents for their patience), then walk down a hill and cross a small stream that runs through the wooded valley. Thirty or 40 more yards over a low wooded ridge and you’re there.

The site cuts into the steep embankment, where a massive, twin-trunk tulip poplar thrusts up between the denuded, squared-off digging units. Higher up the fill and a few yards to the north run the Amtrak and SEPTA tracks.

“There’s a saying that under every mile of track is a dead Irishman, here on the East Coast,” says William Watson G’86 Gr’90. “And that seems to be the case here. They died building something of great consequence—this was the biggest industrial endeavor in Pennsylvania, the second railroad in North America. And their story needs to be told.”

Watson, cheerfully rumpled in a Duffy’s Cut T-shirt and jeans, is sitting in his cluttered office at Immaculata University, a small Catholic college near Malvern, where he is professor and chair of history. For the past eight years he’s been the driving force behind the Duffy’s Cut Project, which seeks to find out just what happened to those Irishmen, and why. Immaculata is now sponsoring the project, but for years Watson and his colleagues were footing the bills for this obsessive labor of love.

A couple of hours earlier, he and a group of the usual student suspects were digging at the site, which is roughly a mile from his office. Though they didn’t find anything this morning, it was still a productive summer: In July they unearthed two new sets of remains whose skulls revealed clear evidence of peri-mortem trauma—a clinical way of saying that they had died violently. That brought the total number of remains to seven.

On another level, the summer was brutal. Historian John Ahtes C’84 G’84, Watson’s good friend and a key member of the project from the beginning, died July 11 of a burst aorta. He was 48 years old. “I have lost my best friend and an irreplaceable pillar,” said Watson, who had been on the phone with a seemingly healthy Ahtes the night before, talking about the remains they had just found and their upcoming classes. (See sidebar on page 41.)

Watson and Ahtes spearheaded the University’s contribution to this remarkable project, though they are by no means the only Penn-affiliated members of the informal team. Janet Monge Gr’91, a forensic anthropologist at the Penn Museum and an adjunct associate professor of anthropology [“Justice in the Bones,” Nov|Dec 1999], has provided invaluable expertise in deciphering the cryptic clues provided by skulls and bones. Samantha Cox C’10 G’10, a graduate student with archaeological experience in ancient Italian cemeteries, has been cracking the whip as on-site supervisor, transforming the dig from a rather chaotic, amateurish site to one that can pass professional muster. And if it hadn’t been for geophysicist Tim Bechtel, a lecturer in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and his sophisticated ground-penetrating radar (GPR), they might still be looking for their first skeleton.

From the beginning, Watson and Ahtes were joined by Watson’s twin brother, Frank, a Lutheran minister; Earl Schandelmeier, an amateur historian and former student of Bill’s; and a shifting group of students and interns and other diggers. (More recently they’ve been joined by a forensic dentist named Matt Patterson.) The story has evolved from a local affair reported by area papers and TV stations to one covered by media ranging from the Guardian and the Irish Echo to Smithsonian magazine and CNN. An Irish film company, Tile, is producing a follow-up version to its 2006 The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut, which is the same title as the book published by Praeger that year and co-written by the Watsons, Ahtes, and Schandelmeier. (A new book is also in the works, to be titled The Men of Duffy’s Cut.)

“There’s a lot of cases of people getting ground up in the Industrial Revolution,” says Watson. “But there are so few cases of a personal history being recovered. For a lot of people in Ireland, this is important, because they knew individuals in their own lineage had the same experience—they were never heard from again after arriving in America.

“We all know that if circumstances had been different, it would have been us buried there, or our sons buried there,” he adds. “It hits home on a personal level when you realize these guys were, like, 20 years old. They come over here and try to get the American Dream and—boom!—they’re snuffed out, six to eight weeks on arrival.”

Download this article (PDF)
COVER STORY: Bones Beneath The Tracks By Samuel Hughes
Photography by Candace diCarlo

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