Ghosts Beneath The Rails

     William Watson, a history professor  in Springfield , Pennsylvania, never believed in ghosts. However the legend of 57 Irish railroad workers has haunted him since he discovered the story of Duffy’s Cut some years ago.

     Watson ,chairman of history & politics at Immaculata University, was going through his grandfather’s papers when he discovered the Pennsylvania Railroad file that contains accounts of the tragedy.

     Duffy’s Cut, located along a stretch of  railroad tracks in rural Chester County, just west of Malvern, takes it’s name from a railroad contractor named Duffy who in the summer of 1832 hired a group of newly arrived Irish immigrants to clear a path through hilly terrain between Frazer and Malvern to make way for the westbound tracks of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad.

     Watson’s colleague, Irish History professor John Ahtes, believes that the men were single and poor, hoping to find opportunity in America, but that their American dream lasted no more than six weeks. He said, “In that time they went from the Philadelphia docks to rotting in a ditch outside Malvern.”

     Living in a large shanty beside a ravine, all 57 became victims of a cholera epidemic that swept the Delaware Valley that year, taking 900 lives and causing widespread panic.

     The workmen turned to nearby residents for help when the scourge first struck, but according to local historian Julian F. Sachse the fear of contagion was so great that no one was willing to give them food or shelter. Watson and Ahtes suspect that anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment prevalent at the time factored into the community’s deplorable response.

     Only the contractor’s blacksmith and several Sisters of Charity sent from Philadelphia braved exposure to minister to the sick. But without proper treatment the Irishmen soon succumbed and the blacksmith was left with the grim task of dragging their bodies across the ravine and burying them in a ditch he dug by himself.

     Watson conjectures that the railroad tried to cover up the incident. No death certificates were ever filed. Work resumed that winter without further acknowledgement of the tragedy.

     But the story of Duffy’s Cut was never completely buried. The site earned an eerie reputation through tales of supernatural encounters and ghostly apparitions that lived on in local legend.

     Sometime in the 1870s, after the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad was purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad, workers that knew the legend of Duffy’s Cut took up the cause of the unfortunate crew. They raised enough money to erect a fence around the area where they believed the bodies were buried, and the railroad tried to maintain it for some time. By 1909, however, the wood had deteriorated, and then assistant supervisor Martin Clement had a stone enclosure built as a more permanent memorial, which remains there to this day.

     Clement, who became President of the railroad, was extremely interested in the story. He created a file on Duffy’s Cut which contains correspondence, articles, inquiries and memos. His assistant, Joseph Tripician, was allowed to keep the file when PRR merged with N.Y.Central railroad in 1968 to become Penn Central.

     Tripician was Watson’s grandfather, and although the file was in the family for years, Watson didn’t discover it until August 2002. He was mesmerized by the story and the site’s proximity to Immaculata campus, only minutes away.

     Watson’s gravest concern is that they may actually lie beneath the tracks of the R-5 commuter line. According to at least one article form 1909, the railroad realigned the tracks in 1880 to smooth out the Sugartown Curve. An elderly farmer reported that the unmarked graves, unknown to the constructors, were covered by the new roadbed. “For almost every minute ponderous trains roll and rumble over the real resting place of the cholera victims,” he added somberly. Watson has an old Pennsylvania Railroad map that verifies the farmer’s story.

     Watson wants to investigate the whereabouts of the bodies with a view to reinterring them in hallowed ground. Watson and Ahtes are also researching archdiocesean records, ship’s passenger lists and census records in an effort to identify the men. He also sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Historical Commission describing the situation and suggesting that a state historical marker be placed in Malvern to properly commemorate the Irishmen. However, the commission’s preliminary review committee was not entirely receptive to the idea. They advised Watson and Ahtes of the need to “demonstrate why the death of Irish Catholic immigrants at Duffy’s Cut is of statewide or national historical significance.”

     In addition to outrage, sympathy, and a sense of kinship,Watson is driven by what he now thinks may have been a first-hand encounter with the restive Irishmen’s spirits. He and Connor claim they had a strange experience while returning from a piping engagement in Lancaster on a rainy night in September,2000, when they made a rest stop at Immaculata before heading home. Connor was looking out a window of the Faculty Center when he noticed odd lights shining on the lawn. He asked Watson, “What am I looking at?” “Probably lawn art,” Watson said of the elongated glowing shapes in staggered formation outside. But as they watched, the radiance suddenly vanished and the scene was dark outside.

     Watson said, “I don’t know what we saw. It was there and vanished. I don’t believe in ghosts or aliens. But I do believe there could be some attempt to reach out.” “Tom and I were wearing kilts and full piping attire. In a flight of fancy one might wonder if some of those men who died nearby so tragically 168 years earlier came out across the fields to connect with fellow Celts wearing kilts near the anniversary of their demise.”


This article was condensed from June/July 2004 by issue of Irish America magazine by Larry McGrath ( written by Lois Puglionesi )


NOTE:  Pennsylvania Historical Commission approved a state marker to commemorate the 57 Irish railroad workers who died at Duffy’S Cut. Archaeologists will excavate a large crater-like depression in a valley adjacent to the tracks, where the men are now thought to be buried. The Chester County Coroner’s Office will perform forensic analysis on any remains found. Immaculata University will partially fund reinterment.

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