Historical Markers
Duffy's Cut Mass Grave Historical Marker
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Duffy's Cut Mass Grave

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
King and Sugartown Roads, Willistown Township

Dedication Date:
June 18, 2004

Behind the Marker

To build their lines, Pennsylvania railroads had to tunnel through mountains, cross wide rivers, span deep gorges to lay the track upon which their trains would run. This was hard, physically demanding, low-paying labor and dangerous work. To find men desperate enough to build and maintain their lines, Pennsylvania railroads for generations relied upon foreign workers - Irish and Chinese, and Italians - and upon African Americans from the South. In 2004, a state historical marker was erected for fifty-seven Irish Catholic men whose fleeting chance at the "American Dream" ended in horror in August, 1832.
Section Gang on hand trolley, 1870
Section Gang on a hand trolley somewhere in Pennsylvania, circa 1870.

Hired on the docks in Philadelphia by Phillip Duffy, a Willistown railroad contractor working for the markerPhiladelphia and Columbia Railroad, these Irishmen were taken to two small hills near the present-day town of Malvern, to fill in a ravine for a track bed. Duffy crowded his work crew into a single hastily built shanty. Largely shunned by the local populace-anti-Irish Catholic riots had broken out in Philadelphia just the year before - the newcomers began their grueling labor in June.

That summer, an outbreak of cholera swept through the Delaware Valley, killing at least 900 people and inciting great anxiety. At the beginning of August, the disease made its deadly appearance in the ravine. As they watched their fellow workers fall ill and then die, some of the Irish men hurried to nearby homes for assistance. But anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant prejudice was so prevalent that doors were barred, and help denied. Only the contractor's blacksmith risked exposure in a futile attempt to save lives. He also led several Sisters of Charity from Philadelphia to the site, but to no avail.

The task of burying the Irish workers, who all died from cholera that August, fell upon the blacksmith. He buried them all in a shallow ditch on the railroad's right of way without ceremony or funeral. Rejected by the local residents, the nuns walked back to Philadelphia without food or water in the late summer heat.

Although incidents of mass death such as this one at Duffy's Cut were uncommon, immigrant workers on Pennsylvania's railroads suffered from injury and death at a high rate, for they were often viewed by the owners and managers of railroad and coal mining corporations as expendable components, and by "native" Americans as unwholesome and even dangerous outsiders. Often crowded into company housing in out-of-the-way locations, foreign-born mine and rail workers struggled for survival in a frequently hostile environment.
Lithograph of the Southwark Bible riot scene
Lithograph of the July 7, 1844 Southwark "Bible Riot," Philadelphia County,...

As commerce and industry expanded rapidly in the decades before the Civil War, immigrant workers' efforts fueled Pennsylvania's exploding economic growth. Landless Irish tenant farmers and laborers, dispossessed by the English in their homeland, and then fleeing starvation after the outbreak of the infamous Irish potato famine, fled by the thousands every year. The vast majority wound up in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Some found skilled labor positions, or farming opportunities, ended up doing temporary and arduous hard labor. One Irish writer remarked in 1860 that there were four modes of power at work in the world of American industry, "water-power, steam-power, horse-power, and Irish-power. The last works hardest of all."

Immigrants from Germany, England, Scotland, Wales, Canada, Norway, and Sweden, and China also arrived in America with high hopes and limited opportunities in the mid-1800s. For those who spoke English or were skilled craftsmen, chances for economic success were greater. Many of these immigrant workers brought with them ideas about labor guilds and fraternities, which would appear in force during the last quarter of the nineteenth century when organized workers challenged the authority of wealthy industrialists.

Railroad jobs, especially for markerbrakemen, could be extremely dangerous. In 1881, more than 30,000 American railroad workers were killed or injured on the job. Many railroads offered no compensation; nor did the courts which ruled that workers shared the blame for their injuries and deaths-even when railroads had the ability to use equipment that would improve safety.

During the mining and railroad strikes of the late 1800s, owners sometimes imported African Americans as strikebreakers, and though some labor organizers like markerWilliam Sylvis and Richard Trevallick of the National Labor Union supported equality for African American workers, much of the white working class was hostile to their inclusion. White workers were often hostile to the Chinese, harboring the stereotype-based fear that submissive Chinese would accept lower wages, and thus undercut the bargaining power of white labor. Wage-earning women also struggled for acceptance and respect. Their efforts were undermined by the prevalent view that women should maintain the home and rear children.

In the late 1800s industrial workers membership in unions in Pennsylvania and across the nation began to afford them some protections against management abuses. But in 1832, the fifty-seven Irish laborers who worked on the Philadelphia and Columbia line were completely on their own. When disease struck, they suffered, and died, alone. No death certificates were ever filed for these non-citizens. Work on Duffy's Cut resumed in the fall.

Excavators stand around a unearthed mass grave.
Excavation work at the Duffy's Cut gravesite, Malvern, PA, circa 2008.
When the Philadelphia and Columbia was purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1857, the story of Duffy's Cut might have been forgotten had it not been for some local residents who still talked about the gruesome tragedy. In 1870, sympathetic local railroad workers constructed a wooden fence around what they thought was the gravesite. In 1909, a railroad assistant supervisor replaced the deteriorating wooden fence with a stone wall. But according to at least one local resident, whose story was recorded in 1919, the Irish men's unmarked graves were covered by track when the Pennsylvania Railroad reset its line in the 1880s to straighten out the Sugartown Curve. Old railroad maps appear to confirm this disturbing possibility.

Official record of the deaths at Duffy's Cut, remained locked in the vaults of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) until Joseph Tripican, a secretary to a former PRR president removed them after the company's bankruptcy in 1970. In the 1990s, one of Tripican's grandsons, Frank Watson discovered the papers in a file, and began with fellow historians William Watson, John Ahtes and Earl Schandelemeier to research the history. The state historical marker, dedicated in 2004, memorializes the fifty-seven Irish workers who died at Duffy's Cut in August of 1832, and the labors and sacrifices of the immigrants who helped build the railroads in Pennsylvania.
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