The principal investigators into the deaths of 57 Irish people at Duffy’s Cut in the summer of 1832 have spoken out about the need for justice for the victims of the tragedy.
Brothers Dr. Frank and Dr. William Watson began their investigation into the deaths at Duffy’s Cut when a file of evidence prepared by their grandfather was left to them on his death.
Their grandfather had worked as an assistant to Martin Clement, a former Chairman of the Pennsylvania and Columbia Railway who owned the railway line at Duffy’s Cut, and when the company shut down in 1970, he kept a file marked as “confidential” containing information on the deaths.
Last week, the brothers traveled with the remains of one of the victims, Catherine Burns, to her home county of Tyrone where she was laid to rest in native soil after 183 years.
In 1832, Catherine Burns joined the floods of Irish people hoping to escape poverty and starvation in Ireland sailing from Derry to a new life in the US.
Settling in Pennsylvania, Burns became one of 57 Irish immigrants from counties Donegal, Tyrone and Derry hired to work on Duffy’s Cut, a stretch of railway in Pennsylvania. Six weeks into the railway works and all the workers were dead.
It is believed that many of the workers died from cholera while others were murdered by local people who believed that the immigrants were responsible for spreading the disease. The families of the workers were never informed of their deaths.
Speaking to the Derry Journal, William Watson said, “It was a tale of injustice. We are here to put the final stamp on it after many years.”
“Our grandfather told us part of the story when we were only young brothers. I have a recollection that the story went in one ear and out the other. I inherited the file after he died.
“In 2002, I looked through the papers and some of my grandfather's work on the railway and remembered this was one of the stories he told us and one that he’d preserved. I teach history at Immaculata University and the site is just beside Duffy’s Cut.
The brothers, both history professors, believe it was fate that brought the file to their hands, a file that may not have been properly investigated if it had been read by somebody else.
“We both have PhD’s in historical areas and we know that when we looked at this it is something very unique. If it had fallen into the hands of someone else it may not have gone anywhere,” said Frank.
“On the cover of the file it said ‘Do not let this get out of the office.’ We then knew there was a mystery here.
“His boss had compiled the file going back to the early days of the 20th century. He had other stuff because he was director of personnel, he was allowed to take from the vault what he wanted. But, we know for a fact that this story was important for him because he kept it in a special place in his study. He annotated the file because there were a couple of dates that his boss had got wrong. So what we inherited was a file with accurate dates and information.”
“It’s a crazy lineage.
“Otherwise this was folklore, whitewash, hidden history that no one would have given a damn about.“
The fate of the 57 Irish workers had remained a secret until the the mass grave was discovered accidentally during construction work, but others have since spoken out about their knowledge of the tale.
“As late as 1955 they were still keeping this a secret,” said William.
“Right after we found the first set of remains I did a talk at Wayne, a place not too far from the site. A guy who was the nephew of Martin Clement came forward and said he was brought into the boardroom and my grandfather was there. It was here that he’d heard the story and was told not to say anything about it. Now, why would they want to keep it a secret unless there was another part to the story?”
“At one point we came across a man whose father had been a contemporary of a man who left Derry in 1832 and came from Donegal,” Frank continued.
“His name was George Doherty and his father's name was John Doherty who was born around 1803 and who was able to tell where the remains were buried. The first man who tried to preserve the story was called Patrick Doyle who arrived in the States before the Civil War. He settled in Pennsylvania and after the war was a track laborer on the railroad.
“His sister also provided rooms in her home for Martin Clement about 1909, so that’s how Clement came to know about the story.”
During their trip to Ireland, the Watson brothers also visited the Derry harbor from which the ship that brought the victims to America departed in 1832.
“Now that we are looking at the river, the Foyle – that they came to the place where we live for a better life but never found it is very sad,” said Frank Watson concluded.