Immigrants’ American Dream ends in tragedy
175 years ago this month, a group of Irish immigrants left for the New World to help build a pioneering railroad. Six weeks later all were dead. Now a search is underway to trace their history and find their bodies.

The Duffy’s Cut grave was never meant to be found. In truth it was little more than just another ditch in the Pennsylvanian countryside.

But over a few short weeks in the summer of 1832 it became the place where the dreams of 57 Irishmen were brutally destroyed - along with their very lives.

Like so many before them - and even more after - the men from Tyrone, Derry and Donegal had left their homeland for a better life in America.

Already by 1820, the Irish accounted for almost half of the country’s immigrants.

Unlike the later influx of Catholics during the Famine, the Irish immigrants of the mid-eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries were predominantly Protestant.

But those who would come to perish at Duffy’s Cut were likely to have been Catholics and possibly even native Irish speakers.

They made the journey to take advantage of work generated by one of the most important innovations of that era - the railroad.

Six years before their arrival, Colonel John Stevens had demonstrated the feasibility of steam locomotion on his estate in Hoboken, New Jersey.

The majority of the men who travelled to Philadelphia on that fateful trip were from Inishowen in north Donegal.

There were also immigrants from Derry and Tyrone on board the John Stamp which left Derry port in June 1832. Most were aged between 18 and 25.

None of the men’s families ever heard from them again after they left for America - within six weeks, all were dead.

Derry man Brian Hegarty believes his great-great-great uncle Leonard was one of those who made the doomed voyage.

“We always knew that he had gone over to Pennsylvania to work on the railways and was never heard of again,” he said.

“When I heard the story I checked up and it was the same date and we think it was on that ship.”

They were hired on the docks in Philadelphia by Philip Duffy, a Willistown railroad contractor from Ireland working for the Philadelphia and Columbia railroad.

The men were taken to a site where Duffy crowded his new crew into appallingly cramped living conditions.

Instead of a land of opportunity and welcome, the homesick workers found themselves shunned by locals. Anti-Irish Catholic riots had broken out in Philadelphia just the year before.

The railroad had to tunnel through mountains, cross wide rivers and span deep gorges.

It was physically demanding, low-paid and dangerous labour which for generations had relied on immigrants - the only ones desperate enough to take on the job.

The workers suffered injury and death at a high rate and were treated by employers as expendable and by ‘native’ Americans as dangerous outsiders.

That summer, a cholera epidemic swept through the Delaware Valley, killing at least 900 people.

It provoked mass anxiety as it crept inexorably towards the area now known as Duffy’s Cut.

One by one, the workers began to fall ill and die.

Some tried to escape to nearby homes for assistance. However, prevailing prejudice meant they were abandoned to their cruel fate.

There are even suspicions that some of the men were murdered by residents afraid the disease would spread.

“It seems that local vigilantes actually shot most of them,” Mr Hegarty said.

“Cholera was a treatable disease, even then. There is no reason why they all should have died.”

Legend has it that only the contractor’s blacksmith risked exposure in a futile attempt to save lives by leading several Sisters of Charity from Philadelphia to the site.

Sadly it was too little, too late.

The task of burying the Irish workers, who all died from cholera that August, was left to that same blacksmith who dumped the bodies in a shallow ditch at the side of the railroad without even a marker to identify them.

Even the nuns who came to help were rejected by residents and forced to endure the long walk back to Philadelphia without food or water.

The collective guilt of the locals endured after the event, however, with folklore to this day suggesting that the souls of the immigrants can still be encountered.

In 1870 sympathetic local railroad workers constructed a wooden fence around what they thought was the grave site, which was replaced with a stone wall in 1909.

It is likely this was not the true grave, which is thought to lie beneath a track laid when the railroad reset its line in the 1880s to straighten out a dangerous curve.

In 2004 a state historical marker was erected for the 57 Irishmen whose search for the American Dream ended in more agony than they could have imagined.

“They went to America with their hopes high but those hopes turned to ashes,” Mr Hegarty said.

* To help the search for the Duffy’s Cut bodies visit

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