Ghosts Beneath the Rails

The stone enclosure overlooking the tracks in Chester County are a memorial to the Irish rail workers who died. (Photo: John Ahtes)

By Lois Puglionesi, Contributor
June / July 2004

William Watson never believed in ghosts. But the legend of 57 Irish railroad workers buried in a common grave has haunted the Springfield, Pennsylvania resident and history professor since the day he discovered the story of Duffy’s Cut some years ago.

Watson, the chairman of history and politics at Immaculata University in Chester County, was going through his grandfather’s papers when he came across the Pennsylvania Railroad file that contains accounts of the tragedy.

Duffy’s Cut, located along a stretch of railroad tracks in rural Chester County, just west of Malvern, takes its name from a railroad contractor named Duffy who in the summer of 1832 hired a group of newly arrived Irish immigrants to clear a path through hilly terrain between Frazer and Malvern to make way for the westbound tracks of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, which was horse-drawn at the time.

Watson’s colleague, Irish History professor John Ahtes, believes that the men were single and poor, hoping to find opportunity in America, but that their American dream lasted no more than six weeks. “In that time they went from the Philadelphia docks to rotting in a ditch outside Malvern,” he says.

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.

The workmen turned to nearby residents for help when the scourge first struck, but according to now deceased local historian Julian F. Sachse the fear of contagion was so great “no one was found willing to give them food or shelter.” Watson and Ahtes suspect anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment prevalent at the time factored into the community’s deplorable response.

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.

Watson conjectures that the railroad tried to cover up the incident. No death certificates were ever filed. Work resumed that winter without further acknowledgment of the tragedy.

But the story of Duffy’s Cut was never completely buried. The site earned an eerie reputation through tales of supernatural encounters and ghostly apparitions that lived on in local legend. 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.”

Sometime in the 1870s, after the Philadelphia and 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 railroad, 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, 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. And although the file was in the family for years Watson didn’t discover it until August 2002. He was mesmerized by the story and the site’s proximity to Immaculata campus — only minutes away.

Watson, his brother Frank and a friend named Tom Conner combed the area until they located the redoubt that marks the graves. Once wild and rocky, shaded by mountain laurel and rhododendron, the site currently abuts two condo developments — Sugartown Ridge and Erin’s Glen.

Watson’s gravest concern is that this unfortunate group of Irishmen may actually lie beneath the tracks of the R-5 commuter line. According to at least one article from 1909, by Alden W. Quimby of Berwyn, the railroad realigned the tracks in the 1880s to smooth out the Sugartown Curve.

Quimby reported that an elderly farmer told him that “the unmarked graves, unknown to the constructors were covered by the new roadbed.” The farmer thought that the original fence had been mistakenly placed around a mound left by the extraction of a huge tree stump. “For almost every minute ponderous trains roll and rumble over the real resting place of the cholera victims,” he added somberly.

Watson has an old Pennsylvania Railroad comparative lines map that verifies the man’s story.

“Forensic archaeologists could tell whether this is the case,” Watson said, adding that according to Pennsylvania State law “no bodies can be permitted to lie under any existing structure.”

Watson wants to investigate the whereabouts of the bodies with a view to reinterring them in hallowed ground. “I know they’d want that. That’s what I’d want.” Watson said, adding, “What happened isn’t moral.”

Such an investigation would also provide definitive evidence concerning details of the story. The East Whiteland Historical Commission, for example, posted a sign visible only from the tracks acknowledging the site several years ago. However, the sign says that the men died of Black Diphtheria in 1834. Watson learned EWHC had scant information from a newspaper article published a half-century ago about a man who was searching for the graves.

Watson and Ahtes are also researching archdiocesan records, ships’ passenger lists and census records in an effort to determine the men’s identities. Watson also sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Historical Commission describing the situation and suggesting that a state historical marker be placed on King Street in Malvern to properly commemorate the Irishmen. However, the commission’s preliminary review committee was not entirely receptive to the nomination. They advised Watson and Ahtes of the need to “demonstrate why the death of Irish Catholic immigrants at Duffy’s Cut is of statewide or national historical significance.”

The professors have turned to Pennsylvania Senators Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum, as well as Governor Ed Rendell and a state representative, for further support. They have also begun circulating a petition, and now have about 500 signatures.

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.

They searched the area thoroughly, but there were no lamps or streetlights that could have been a source of the strange iridescence. “It was then that we got really scared,” Watson 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 added.

“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.” ♦

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