Lost and Found

When 57 immigrant railroad workers died near Malvern in 1832, they were seen as unfortunate casualties of progress. But the recent discovery of their remains suggests that something far more sinister may have led to their demise.

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Immaculata University professor Bill Watson, with his twin brother, Frank, a Lutheran minister, at the Duffy’s Cut excavation site. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)With winter long gone, the digging can resume at a site in Malvern just south of the span of commuter rail line that runs between Paoli and Frazer. The focal point is old Mile 59 of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad before it. It’s the P&C’s efforts between 1840 and 1850 that made the Main Line possible.

Duffy’s Cut was named for 19th-century railroad contractor Philip Duffy, who was charged with building this particular stretch of rail any way he could. “Cut” is railroad lingo for the gouging of the earth to lay flat track. For Mile 59, laborers had to first build a land bridge with fill—Duffy’s Fill. Sadly, 57 Irish immigrant laborers Duffy ushered from dock to ditch the summer of 1832 died within six weeks. They were anonymously buried that August within that fill.

Burying men under track became commonplace, but Duffy’s Cut was history’s first instance. Or so believes the team that’s been assembled at Immaculata University—made up of academics and historians, along with volunteer archeologists, paleontologists and forensic experts. So far, they’ve found the remains of five of the 57 laborers. That gruesome discovery made international news last year, and exposed one of this region’s most fascinating cover-ups.

Two of the skulls discovered had damage consistent with blunt-force trauma, which calls into question reports that everyone in the crew fell victim to the widespread Asiatic cholera outbreak that ravaged Philadelphia that summer. Archival research, a long-covert railroad file and the subsequent archeological discoveries all point to the possibility that anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment and violence were directed at the men, who would’ve been exotic threats to the locals. Even more shockingly, the railroad itself may have acted to halt the spread of cholera by preemptively killing the infected, figuring the men were expendable and untraceable, and the assailants’ crimes erasable—with fill.

A much younger Bill and Frank walking the rails with their grandfather, not far from the site.The Rev. J. Francis Watson would finally get his chance to examine the confidential railroad file long stored in a Narberth study and passed down by his grandfather. With it, his twin brother, William, would come to understand his supernatural sighting at Immaculata University two years prior, as townhouses surrounding Duffy’s Cut were going up. Frank would remember his grandfather’s Thanksgiving Day railroad ghost stories, both siblings would recall the walks they took with him on defunct rail.

“No one believes us, but it’s all a coincidence,” says Bill, who chairs the history department at Immaculata.

“We see God’s hand—and a greater purpose—in all of this,” adds his brother, a Lutheran minister. “Mysteries that have remained mysteries for generations are supposed to remain mysterious.”

Compelled by their memories and recent findings, they found the valley in East Pikeland Township. It was declared a crime scene, and this spring, the team—which also includes Immaculata history lecturer Earl Schandelmeier—will continue searching for and identifying as many men as it can to provide for proper burials. West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd has committed pro-bono plots.

“There’s the social injustice, of course, and the story of Irish immigration, but also the hidden history of the railroad and the untold story of the sacrifices for American industrialization in Jacksonian America,” says Bill. “There are a thousand reasons why we should be doing this. But everywhere we went to ask for [technical assistance and financial] help, we were told the project has no extrinsic value.”

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