Forgotten Irish cemetery discovered near Blue Ridge Virginia
Lost famine Irish workers and families lie in forgotten graves
An abandoned Irish cemetery lies tucked within the hills of western Albemarle County, Virginia. Only a few miles east of the historic Blue Ridge Tunnel, it’s located on a gentle rise next to Pollak Vineyards. I call it the Quinn Cemetery.
A low stone wall exactly 75 feet square defines the space. It’s quite likely that the weathered hands of an Irish stone mason erected the wall sometime between 1850 and 1860. During these years, many hundreds of single Irish men and scores of Irish families moved to the area.
Refugees from the Great Hunger raging in Ireland, they settled in for a decade of backbreaking toil. With volatile black gunpowder and hand chisels, they blasted through the almost one-mile-long Blue Ridge Tunnel at Rockfish Gap, Virginia. They also built three shorter tunnels and laid thirty-four miles of connecting tracks.
About twenty-five Irish are buried in the Quinn Cemetery. Casualties of the railroad construction, their remains lie beneath roughly rectangular, unmarked field stones. One single, inscribed headstone stands in the center of the graveyard. It leans slightly, as if losing the strength to continue its lonely job. Beneath a simple carved cross is this inscription:
In memory of
Died August 4 1855
Aged 1 year 7 months
Died August 4 1856
Children of John & Hannah Quinn
I know from payroll records that John Quinn was an Irish stone mason who worked on the Blue Ridge Tunnel. But I may never know how little Eugene and Mary died; death records for Albemarle County from that time are incomplete.
I do know that cholera, pneumonia, whooping cough, and unknown causes struck down other children of the Blue Ridge Railroad. However the Quinn children died, it’s enough to know that John Quinn and his Irish wife, Hannah Kelley Cotter Quinn, felt a keening grief when they placed these two small bodies in the ground.
More than two years ago, I helped found Clann Mhór, a research group focused on the Blue Ridge Railroad. Last month, I started a new group called Clann Mhór Rising (http://clannmhorrising.blogspot.com). We take a more scholarly approach to the study of the railroad and the laborers who built it. Our first mission was helping informants who share last names with John Quinn and Hannah Kelley Cotter Quinn to register the cemetery with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Our second mission has been arranging a visit to the Quinn Cemetery on Saint Patrick’s Day. In a brief ceremony, a few Quinn, Kelley, and Cotter folks would commemorate the deaths of the Quinn children with readings, prayers, and bowed heads. A piper or flute player would accompany us if possible. Organizing the group will be easy. The problem is access.
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