Category: Archive

Echo Focus: Philly’s big dig

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Exploration of what experts believe is a burial site for early 19th century Irish rail workers is now focusing on three precise areas.
And the search will reach a heightened pitch in the next few weeks with the return to the site of a ground penetrating radar device that looks not unlike the kind of NASA rovers that have crisscrossed the Moon and Mars.
“There are three areas where the ground radar will be used,” Dr. William Watson, one of the leaders of the archeological dig, told the Echo.
Since the summer of 2004, excavation work has been carried out during the warmer months beside a busy Philadelphia suburban rail line.
The work is being conducted in an effort to determine the final resting place of 57 Irish railroad workers who died in 1832.
Dr. Watson, of nearby Immaculata University, is leading the effort to find out whether the workers died of cholera, or in some cases, from deliberate negligence or violence from local vigilante groups.
Work at Duffy’s Cut has already uncovered a treasure trove of artifacts including a belt buckle, coins, eating utensils, buttons, pickaxes and various kinds of spikes and nails.
A portion of rail track was even found during an earlier phase of the dig.
But so far there has not been any trace of the human remains that Watson and his colleagues believe are interred at the site, or on its immediate fringes.
“No remains have been found yet but this is a slow, painstaking process and we are narrowing down the areas,” Watson said.
Two of the three areas that will be subjected to ground penetrating radar are viewed by Watson and his team as being particularly promising.
One is a gully somewhat removed and out of sight of what the dig team has determined was the main campsite for the rail workers, all of them immigrants from north western counties of Ireland.
Watson is of the view that when the men died they would have been buried some distance from the spot where the surviving workers continued to live. The gully matches up with this theory.
Another piece of ground that is of particular interest lies to the south of the campsite.
It has turned up no artifacts thus far but has attracted interest because the earth at this location rises in the shape of a mound.
Most of the work during this summer season has been conducted with metal detectors and hand trowels.
“We have to fill in the holes that we excavate out of regard for local homeowners. This is not quite like an Egyptology dig,” Watson said.
The sifting, digging and filling in has, of necessity, been a time consuming operation, hence the considerable advantage of the ground penetrating radar machine.
The device can “look” under the surface to a depth of 17 feet, well below a level that bodies would have been buried.
The ground radar machine’s services are being provided by New Jersey-based Ron Labarca who has previously contributed his expertise to archeological work in that part of the Antietam Civil War battlefield where the Irish Brigade fought head-to-head with Confederate soldiers at Bloody Lane in the fall of 1862.
“Ron has taken us to a different level, literally,” said Watson.
Duffy’s Cut covers roughly an acre. The exact whereabouts of the remains of the Irish workers within the boundaries of the site, or just beyond it borders, has been a mystery for more than a century and a half.
Watson believes that some of the Irish workers at Duffy’s Cut might have been buried alive during the stage of cholera known as cold cholera.
At this point in the disease’s lethal progress, it is possible to appear dead, though the individual is still alive.
Watson also suspects that some of the workers were murdered by members of local vigilante groups that were hostile towards Irish immigrants.
One thing beyond doubt is that the men lived, worked and died at Duffy’s Cut. The artifacts are clear proof of the living and working part of the story.
The recovered artifacts are being shipped to Pennsylvania’s railroad museum near Starsburg for further examination.
Clay tobacco pipes that have been unearthed are variously inscribed with words and designs including “Derry,” shamrocks and an Erin Go Bragh flag.
Separate to the excavation at Duffy’s Cut, Watson and his team have been working to trace the arrival of the rail workers through shipping records for the port of Philadelphia.
The team has uncovered records for the arrivals of eight ships in Philadelphia at the time, all carrying immigrants from Ireland.
Most of them were natives of counties Tyrone, Donegal and Derry.
According to Watson, almost all of the immigrants would have been skilled workers.
Only one ship carried unskilled workers. It was a barque called the “John Stamp.” Most of its passengers came from Donegal and Tyrone.
Watson believes it was this vessel that carried the ultimately doomed Irish rail workers across the Atlantic.
Any human remains uncovered at the dig site will be studied by the local coroner’s office, and possibly by a cultural anthropologist from Ireland.
There is also the possibility that facial reconstruction might be carried out if intact skulls are recovered.
Meanwhile, Watson and three of his colleagues have written a book on their work.
“The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut: The Irish Who died Building America’s Most Dangerous Stretch of Railroad,” has a publication date of July 30. Details of the work at the site to date and the upcoming book are available on a website, www.duffyscutproject.com.
In its introduction, the website succinctly explains the reason for the painstaking work at Duffy’s Cut.
“In June, 1832, a group of 57 Irish immigrants from Donegal, Tyrone, and Derry arrived in Philadelphia,” it states.
“They were brought to Chester County by a fellow Irishman named Philip Duffy as laborers for the construction of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, Pennsylvania’s pioneering railroad. Within six weeks, all were dead of cholera and possibly violence, and were buried anonymously in a ditch outside of Malvern.”
Watson said that while he was hopeful that he and his colleagues would crack the Duffy’s Cut mystery this summer, all on the team were thankful that local landowners had given the go ahead for excavation work to continue into next year if necessary.
This ground, as Watson and his colleagues well know by now, gives up its secrets in its own time, and its own time alone.

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