Archeological work beside a busy Philadelphia suburban rail line is still going on this week in an effort to determine the final resting place of 57 Irish railroad workers who died in 1832.
Dr. William Watson of 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.
Excavation work on the site has already uncovered a piece of the track from 1832 as well as a trove of other artifacts including a belt buckle, a coin, eating forks, buttons, pickaxes and all kinds of spikes and nails.
The artifacts are being shipped to Pennsylvania’s railroad museum near Starsburg for further examination.
The burial site, in a place known as Duffy’s Cut, covers roughly an acre. The exact whereabouts of the remains of the Irish workers within the boundaries of the site has long been a mystery.
But Watson believes that the ultimate discovery could come at any moment.
“We have yet to find human bones but we have discovered an ash pit that we believe was the site of a shanty. We believe we’re right on the spot,” Watson told the Irish Echo.
The ash pit, which roughly matches the dimensions of a human grave, has already revealed treasures of its own.
According to Watson, a number of clay pipes have been dug up, an indication that this is the spot where the immigrant workers lived — and quite possibly died.
The pipes are variously inscribed with words and designs including “Derry” shamrocks and an Erin Go Bragh flag.
“The pipes are a clear indication of the presence of these men,” Watson said.
He described the discovery as being “very humbling.”
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.
During this stage of the disease, it is possible to appear dead, though the individual is still alive.
Watson also suspects that some may have been murdered by local vigilante groups, who were hostile towards Irish immigrants.
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 the immigrants were natives of counties Tyrone, Donegal and Derry, hence the pipe with the name that would have been a reference to the county, the city, or both.
According to Watson, almost all of 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 confirmed human remains uncovered at the dig site will be studied by the county 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.
“We are really hopeful that we will recover remains in the next few days. We are very, very close. It might only be a matter of inches,” Watson said.
“We can almost taste it. We know we are right there but you could be inches away and not know it.”