(Lots) More Bones Beneath the Tracks

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There’s good news and bad news from the Duffy’s Cut Project, whose hard-earned discoveries we reported a year ago. The good news is that they appear to have found the elusive mass grave of Irish railroad workers who died in 1832. The bad news is that the site lies deep beneath the tracks now used by Amtrak and SEPTA, and can’t be excavated.

Led by the tenacious William Watson G’86 Gr’90, professor and chair of history at Immaculata University, the Duffy’s Cut Project team had already unearthed the remains of seven of the 57 workers who died suddenly in August 1832 while constructing a particularly difficult stretch of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in rural Chester County. Several of those seven had been buried in coffins (long since disintegrated), and careful examination of their skulls revealed persuasive evidence of a violent end, confirming Watson’s suspicion that not all of the workers had died of the cholera epidemic that summer.

But the other 50 remained unaccounted for until this past September, when Tim Bechtel, a lecturer in Penn’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, discovered a “major disturbance” with his ground-penetrating radar (GPR) roughly 100 yards to the east and 30 feet beneath the tracks.

Ironically, that site is more or less directly beneath the square-shaped stone wall erected in 1909 as a monument to the workers by a Pennsylvania Railroad supervisor (later its president) named Martin Clement. When the team first began digging in late 2002, they examined the area near the wall but lacked the sophisticated technology needed to locate something so deep. They moved down the valley to the west, where they uncovered the site of the camp where the workers lived. By the time Bechtel arrived with his game-changing GPR, the search was confined to the valley and the steep fill that slopes up to the tracks west of the monument. And in March 2009, they hit pay dirt: the first of seven human remains, which had been buried in the fill that once supported the original tracks.

“Tim actually surveyed the entire fill area to the west for us, where we had thought the main grave would be located, and while he was able to locate the individual graves fairly easily, the main cache of bones seemed elusive,” says Watson. “Then he started surveying to the east, up the slope from the individual burials, and he suspected that there was a major disturbance, near the 1909 stone wall built by Martin Clement, that warranted further investigation.

“We got the OK from Amtrak to do the survey, as it is on Amtrak land, and Tim did the survey in September. He found the mass grave there, in an area where he suspects the bodies were later moved to when the PRR did early track-expansion work—probably in the 1870s, when there was a wooden fence placed by Patrick Doyle on the spot where the stone wall is now.” The grave, he adds, “is 30 feet below the wall, which would be at the original grade of the valley. They did a good job of covering it all up, because it would undermine the railroad to dig there, and we cannot do it.

“We’re disappointed that they are up there rather than in the valley,” admits Watson. “But we’re hoping Amtrak will allow us to conduct a small private ceremony for those men prior to the public reburial of the men we recovered in the valley, sometime in March 2012.”
In the meantime, the crew is still working on removing one set of remains from the tangled roots of a massive tulip poplar tree.

“We are still working to get the left side of the man under the tree, which should take a few more weeks, and then we’re moving on to other sites” in Pennsylvania, says Watson. “The reburial of the men we recovered at the Cut will be around St. Patrick’s Day next year. A lot of paperwork from the Chester County coroner’s office still needs to be done for that.”

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