Irish Laborers Buried Under Suburban Railroads

fromWHYY

When commuters ride the train in the northwest suburbs of Philadelphia, most don't know they are passing within a stone's throw of a mass grave. Historians are excavating what could be the remains of more than 50 Irish laborers buried underneath the railroad. Peter Crimmins of member station WHYY in Philadelphia reports.

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When commuters ride the train in the northwest suburbs of Philadelphia, most don't know they are passing within a stone's throw of a mass grave. Historians are excavating what could be the remains of more than 50 Irish laborers buried underneath the railroad.

From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Peter Crimmins has the story.

PETER CRIMMINS: This section of the railroad is called Duffy's Cut. It's in a small, densely wooded valley behind a housing development, and it's known for its ghost stories.

Mr. FRANK WATSON: The main one actually dates from September of 1832. A local man was walking down the tracks, looked down into this valley where the Irishmen were buried and saw their ghosts dancing on the graves.

CRIMMINS: Frank Watson is part of the archaeological team that used historical documents, geothermal sensing equipment and spooky ghost stories to pinpoint the dig site. So far he and his colleagues have uncovered parts of four skeletons, and they feel certain there are more.

The researchers don't know their names, but they have an idea about where the workers came from. A ship's log shows a group of men sailed from County Donegal in Ireland to Philadelphia in the summer of 1832. Fifty-seven men were hired to work the railroad. University of Maryland professor Stephen Brighton says this may be the most important archaeological site of the Irish diaspora in America.

Professor STEPHEN BRIGHTON (University of Maryland): We reconstruct ourselves and past societies through teacups and saucers and bottles. What we don't get is the individual experience between poor, laboring poor, wealthy, elites. How does that play out on a body?

CRIMMINS: Also arriving from Europe in 1832 was a cholera pandemic. Immaculata University history professor John Ahtes says these men stuck in this valley with no medical support were ravaged by disease and maybe something more.

Professor JOHN AHTES (History, Immaculata University): Whether there was also a degree of violence in keeping the men in the valley or perhaps in murdering them is speculative, but we have found, in the first two complete skulls that we've discovered here in the dig, evidence of physical violence.

CRIMMINS: The two complete skulls the team dug up both have holes punched in them.

Mr. AHTES: Immigrants, particularly Irish-Catholic ones, weren't terribly well-liked in the best of circumstances, but when they were seen as bringing a dreadful disease into the region, certainly at a time when people would turn on members of their own family, you can imagine what they might do to an immigrant work crew.

CRIMMINS: The excavation leader is Immaculata history professor Bill Watson(ph). He suspects the men buried their own under the tracks one by one.

Professor BILL WATSON (History, Immaculata University): There's an old railroad song, "Bury Me in the Hill," "Bury Me Where I Work in the Hill."

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) If I die a railroad man, bury me under the tie so I can hear (unintelligible) as she goes rolling by.

Mr. WATSON: This became the custom in later years, to bury men in the field where they worked when they died. It's the first case we know of of men being buried in this hill.

CRIMMINS: The parts of skeletons that Watson and his crew have dug up will soon undergo DNA testing, and maybe the living descendents can be identified. Ultimately, the remains of these poor laborers lost to history will find their final resting place back home in Ireland.

For NPR News, I'm Peter Crimmins in Philadelphia.

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