The Ghosts of Duffy's Cut

The Irish Who Died Building America's Most Dangerous Stretch of Railroad

by William E. Watson, J. Francis Watson, John H. Ahtes III, and Earl H. Schandelmeier III


Details the cover-up of one of the worst labor tragedies in American history—the death (and probable murder) of 57 Irish immigrant workers in a cholera-stricken railroad camp in 1832.

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Cover image for The Ghosts of Duffy's Cut

July 2006


Pages 240
Volumes 1
Size 6 1/8x9 1/4
Topics American History/General

In 1832, 57 Irish Catholic workers were brought to the United States to lay one of the most difficult miles of American railway, Duffy's Cut of the Pennsylvania Railroad. These men were chosen because, in the eyes of the railroad company that hired them, they were expendable. Deaths were common during the building of the railway but this stretch was worse than most. When cholera swept the camp basic medical attention and community support was denied to them. In the end all 57 men—the entire work crew—died and were buried in a mass unmarked grave. Their families in Ireland were never notified about what happened to them. The company did its best to cover up the incident, which was certainly one of the worst labor tragedies in U.S. history. Set against the backdrop of a rapidly industrializing America, this book tells the story of these men, the sacrifices they made, and the mistreatment that claimed their lives.

The saga of Duffy's Cut focuses particularly on the Irish laborers who built the railroads. Who were these men? Who hired them? Why did they come? Perhaps most important, why did they die? Based on archaeological digs at the site and meticulous historical research, the authors argue that the annihilation of the work crew came about because of the extreme conditions of their employment, the prejudice of the surrounding community, and the vigilante violence that kept them isolated. In shedding light on this tragic chapter in American labor history, The Ghosts of Duffy's Cut also illuminates a dark side of America's rise to greatness.

Author Info

William E. Watson is associate professor and chair of history at Immaculata College in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Tricolor and Crescent (Praeger, 2003) and The Collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union (Greenwood, 1998).

J. Francis Watson has a PhD in historical theology and is a Lutheran clergyman and ecclesiastical archivist in New Jersey. His articles on religious history have appeared in various journals.

John H. Ahtes III is assistant professor of history, Immaculata College. He has published in Irish Review.

Earl H. Schandelmeier III received his BA in history from Immaculata University, where he served as history department assistant. He teaches history in Maryland. He worked for many years in business, including as a consultant for Toyota Motor Production Systems, and also as an operations manager.

Table of Contents

Preface and AcknowledgmentsThe Genesis of the Philadelphia and Columbia RailroadThe Kingdom of Ireland in 1832America in 1832The Irish in Penn's WoodsThe Story of Duffy's Cut"A Chastisement for the Sins of the People": Cholera in Pennsylvania, 1832Duffy's Cut in Historical MemoryThe Ghosts of Duffy's CutDuffy's Cut Project: A ChronicleA Virtual Tour of Duffy's CutAppendixNotesBibliographyIndexPhoto Sections



"In the summer of 1832, Irish immigrant Philip Duffy contracted 57 of his newly arrived countrymen to lay a stretch of railroad some 30 miles west of Philadelphia. Within two months, all were dead, struck down in the global cholera pandemic that hit Philadelphia the same time they did. Four historians, three at Immaculata College in Pennsylvania, tell the story, putting into the context of immigration, industrialization, and epidemiology. They draw on surviving archival and archaeological evidence."Reference & Research Book News

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