The drill machine atop the spot believed to be the mass grave
By Ray O’Hanlon
It’s not so much down to the wire as down into the mire.
The twelve year exploration and excavation at Duffy’s Cut has this week reached a landmark moment: the drilling of bore holes into what Dr. William Watson and his Duffy’s Cut team believe is a mass grave containing the remains of 51 Irish railroad workers who died at the Malvern, Pennsylvania site in 1832.
The mass grave is just yards from a main train line carrying Amtrak and SEPTA trains and the exploration and excavation only follows several years of negotiation with local authorities, the rail companies, and local landowners.
“First we cleaned the site for the core samples, and Amtrak members of IBEW were there to really clean it up nicely,” said Dr. Watson, who is an historian at nearby Immaculata University.
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“Our geologist then placed flags for where the cores were to be taken. We got the okay from the man who owns the land across the tracks to do excavations there. His land is the northern end of the Cut so our geologists expects to find things there too.
“It has been an incredibly complicated thing from 2012 to now, with lots of moving parts, to get to the verge of the cores and the next phase of the dig,” Watson said.
The initial part of the dig has involved filling dozens of small containers with dirt. But in that dirt, Dr. Watson and his colleagues expect to find bone fragments.
The drilling machine can reach down as far as thirty feet into the earth so its exploration will comprehensive.
The soil samples will be analyzed over the next couple of weeks by forensic specialist, Dr. Janet Monge, at the University of Pennsylvania.
The mass grave site is marked by the remains of a stone memorial structure dating back to 1909. That structure had replaced an earlier wooden one erected in 1872 by Irish railroad workers to remember the dead of 1832.
The Duffy’s Cut dig, which has been going on during the warmer months since 2004, is piecing together the story of 57 Irish railroad workers who died on the site from Cholera, or were murdered by anti-immigrant vigilantes, more than a decade before the start of the Great Hunger in Ireland.
The remains of six of the dead were recovered over the years just yards from the mass grave site. One of them became known as “the man under the tree.”
In addition, a trove of artefacts has also been recovered.
The partial remains of two victims, a man and a woman, identified through DNA testing as John Ruddy from Donegal and Catherine Burns from Tyrone, have been reburied in their native counties.
The hope is to identify more individuals from the mass grave and similarly allow them to be reinterred in Ireland.
Identification is possible in part due to ships’ records from the time that the Duffy’s Cut immigrants crossed the Atlantic from Ireland, most of them natives of counties Donegal, Derry and Tyrone.
The Duffy’s Cut project was originated by Dr. Watson and his brother, Rev. Frank Watson, back in 2002. In the following years, the research and on-site excavations have been led by the Watsons and Earl Schadnelmeier.
The three, together with John Eates, combined to write a book, “The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut,” which was published in 2006.
Duffy’s Cut is situated about twenty miles from Philadelphia.