BY JONATHAN VALANIA There is an old saying that goes: under every mile of railroad track is a dead Irishman. Locally speaking this is almost literally true. Back in the 19th Century, the Main Line was built on the blood, sweat and tears of Irish Catholic immigrants, who back then commanded about as much respect as Mexican migrant workers command today. Out near Malvern, under mile 59 of what was then the Pennsylvania Railroad and is today SEPTA’s R-5 line, beneath a stretch of track known as Duffy’s Cut, lies the bodies of 57 Irish railroad workers. What killed them remains mystery — a mystery that, some 186 years later, appears to be on the verge of being solved. The official record says says the men died of cholera, but a team of academic researchers known as the Duffy’s Cut Project suspects foul play — that some, if not all, of the men were in fact murdered in cold blood by wealthy landowners to stem the spread of a cholera epidemic, then raging in Philadelphia, to Chester County, and the Pennsylvania Railroad has kept the horrible truth about the massacre hidden for nearly two centuries. And the Duffy’s Cut Project believes they are on the verge of uncovering the forensic evidence to prove it.
On the heels of this breakthrough, comes the publication of Massacre at Duffy’s Cut: Tragedy and Conspiracy on the Pennsylvania Railroad (History Press, October 22, 2018) by Frank and William Watson [pictured below as children, with their grandfather], the prime movers behind the Duffy’s Cut Project. William is a history professor at Immaculata University in Malvern, and Frank is a clergyman and local historian. Their grandfather was a Pennsylvania Railroad executive, and keeper of the company archive, who instilled in them an abiding interest in the history and lore of the American railroads. When he passed away, he left the brothers his vast trove of company files and internal communications. It was while digging through this archive that the brothers uncovered the long-suppressed file on the tragedy at Duffy’s Cut.
In June of 1832, the 57 Irish migrant workers arrived at the docks of Philadelphia. Six weeks later they would all be dead. History would blame cholera for their deaths, but history is always written by the winners, and the winners — in this case the railroad company and the landed gentry of Chester County — would be best served by such an explanation. But in fact there is a lot about the historical record that doesn’t add up.
By the summer of 1832, a global epidemic of cholera had arrived on the East Coast of America and was currently raging through the Philadelphia region, taking upwards of 80 lives a day during its peak in early August. Before it was over, the cholera outbreak would kill 900 in the Delaware Valley. The infection soon spread to the workers at Duffy’s Cut and by late August, according to archival accounts, all 57 had succumbed. The men lived in a warren of tent shanties at the bottom of a deep, wooded valley located a stone’s throw from mile 59, and it was there that that would be buried in unmarked graves and covered over with the dark loamy earth they had shoveled out of Duffy’s Cut just weeks prior.
And it was there that they would remain, forlorn and forgotten, if not for the efforts of the Watson brothers — Bill, chairman of the history department at nearby Immaculata University, and Frank, a Lutheran pastor with a P.H.D. in historical theology — and a small volunteer army of archaeologists, forensics experts and history students. For nearly two decades — despite near-zero funding, the skepticism of many and the outright obstruction of others — the Watson brothers’ team have been digging through a historical paper trail and the tick-infested valley at Duffy’s Cut searching for the remains of the men and the truth about what happened to them.
Tomorrow night they will host a book signing/fundraiser at the Grace Kelley House in East Falls. In addition to the book signing, the event will feature a short lecture on the Crime Scene Investigation aspect of the Project by Dr. Matt Patterson, forensic dentist formerly with the US Navy, and Duffy’s Cut Forensic Analyst; open bar (featuring Doylestown Brewery’s Duffy’s Cut Irish Red Ale) and hors d’oeuvres; live Irish music in Kelly’s Authentic Irish Pub. You can purchase tickets HERE.