Duffy’s Cut – Immigration and the American Railroad

8 03 2012

In 1832, the railroad was still a dream for most of America. But in a few places, those dreams were becoming reality. One such project was the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad which would connect Philadelphia to the Susquehanna River at Columbia. Here the rails would meet canals as part of an ambitious project to link Philadelphia and Pittsburgh – then very much on the western edge of the American frontier.

Track Gang

Railroad construction meant hard labor. In the 1830s, workers built rights-of-way that still carry trains today with little more than picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. Loss of life was an accepted cost of business.

Construction projects like the P&C required massive amounts of labor. There was no mechanization; all of the work was done on the backs of men – most of whom came to the United States in pursuit of a dream of their own. In the 1830s, one of the largest currents of immigration was coming from Ireland. The Irish came by the shipload in search of a better life on foreign shores. Despite the bleak conditions at home, many found the long and trying trans-Atlantic voyage was only the first of many arduous roadblocks on their path to success

The story that follows is not unique to this group of men, their time, or their Irish brethren. This is a story told thousands of times over across the history of the United States and it continues to play on tonight’s evening news. Like the men you will meet here, all to often the individual stories become lost in the struggle and the debate – their voices often silenced, identities unknown, their contribution to the America we know today forgotten.

Duffy’s Cut

In 1828, construction began on the ambitious Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. There was no single company in the country at that time who could undertake such a project single-handedly. The railroad was chartered by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and construction contracts were let out to contractors to build sections of the right-of-way. The contract for Mile 59 was awarded to Philip Duffy, a middle-class Irish immigrant who had contracted previous construction projects and relied heavily on immigrants from his native Ireland. Mile 59, later known as “Duffy’s Cut,” required construction of a large cut to level the grade. Fill from that cut would be used to create a fill in a neighboring valley. This “cut-and-fill” concept was common in early railroad projects where grades had to be kept to an absolute minimum. The work was necessary, but brutal.

In June of 1832, Duffy gathered 57 Irish immigrants who had just arrived in Philadelphia. The workers were taken to Mile 59 where a temporary shanty town was erected to serve as home during the construction. The living conditions were no better than the working conditions. Typical wages were $10-15 per month. The men were in general, poor and single, Catholic and Gaelic-speaking. They came to this country with little more than the shirt on their back and a willingness to work for near-nothing.

Shortly after their arrival at the site, a wave of cholera hit the camp. Cholera outbreaks were common. Only fear of the disease seemed to spread faster than the outbreak itself. Because of this, all of the workers at camp were denied help from all but a few willing missionaries. It was known that at least a few of the men died of the disease that summer – and then all history of the entire encampment was wiped clean. The Irish of Duffy’s Cut remained local legend, but as years wore on the story appeared to be more tale than truth.

John Bull

Locomotives of the period, like the John Bull built in 1831, could not handle grades of any cosequence. The work of Duffy's men would make expansion of the rail network and the country itself possible.

To learn more of the whereabouts of the 57 Irish immigrants we have to fast-forward 175 years later when a pair of researchers, Frank and William Watson, began looking into the incident. Thanks to their inquiries and hard work we can at least begin to piece together the last days of these lives. A report found in the records of PRR President Clement noted that 57 men had died of cholera, but detailed records of the day indicated only a few names. What really happened to the remaining workers?

An archeological excavation was begun on the site – next to the tracks where Amtrak trains still race today. Digs found remains of a shanty site which appeared to have been burned along with utensils and buttons of the period. A short while later, digging closer to the earth fill, the first human remains were uncovered. That first skeletal remains revealed new evidence. The partial remains of four workers were found, and three of the four showed signs of brutal trauma before death. Probable gunshot wounds, axe marks and signs of blunt trauma. Further examination with ground-penetrating sonar has shown that the remainder of the graves are likely found within the fill itself – a place where further exploration simply isn’t possible.

Did all of the workers die of disease, or had there been another story? Some of the workers likely did die of the disease. Others may have fallen victim to fears of its spread, killed by local vigilantes or even railroad workers and then quietly covered up without suspicion. Their bodies were then buried in a mass grave within the very fill they were hired to build. Their families at home in Ireland would never know of their deaths. The physical evidence, no matter how gruesome, is validated by similar accounts, miss-matched records and sadly, is not beyond plausibility given the prevailing attitudes and fears of the time.

What exactly happened to these 57 men? We don’t at this time even know all the names of all the dead. Perhaps future research will yield more answers, but likely also more questions. The exhumed remains will be reinterred at a proper service tomorrow, March 9, 2012.

Making Connections

The story of Duffy’s Cut, no matter how incomplete, is one that resonates. Why? How is it that we can feel for these men when we don’t even know their names? Why after all these years of obscurity is their chapter important in the bigger story of our history? Are there still lessons to be learned from this tale even as there are questions yet to be answered? This is the real power of history, and the reason why it remains so important to study and pursue today.

This blog is not meant to be a final statement or opinion on the case, rather it is written to invite you to make your own conclusions.

  • What do you think happened?
  • Were their deaths caused by disease, fear, hatred, or just ignorance?
  • What role might their immigrant status or heritage have played in their demise?
  • Have we learned the lessons of our past, or can we see parallels in current events?

Look deeper into the story for yourself, visit the Duffy’s Cut Project for more information, and interpret the history for yourself.



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