Lower Merion Historical Society

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Irish Railroad workers buried in cemetery by the tracks

By David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

It wasn’t a land where the streets were paved with gold. That was the first lesson immigrants to America learned.

Philadelphia was originally one of the centers of immigration to America, especially for the Irish and English. In the 1820s alone nearly 20,000 people landed there, accounting for a full ten percent of the national total. They came on sailing ships, jammed into steerage. Even that wasn’t cheap, a steerage ticket from Liverpool, where most of the Irish departed Britain to Philadelphia was between five and seven pounds when a point was a week’s wage

They didn’t come voluntarily
For many Irish people there was nothing at home except starvation and persecution, so they came to American willing and able to work. But unlike the opportunities that they’d had in their homelands, there was work. Although life for the Irish in the 19th Century was anything but pleasant, they began the process of becoming Americans.

But they were unique among immigrants. They fiercely loved America but never gave up their allegiance to Ireland…and they kept their hatred of the English. Twice they tried to invade Canada, believing that they could trade Canadian land for Ireland’s freedom. In spite of, or perhaps because of their passions, they were hard workers and hard drinkers. Without them, the pace of history in America’s industrial development would have been greatly slowed.

There was work for them
That’s because they began arriving just when there was a need for them. The country was growing and it needed men to do the heavy work of building bridges, canals and railroads. In Pennsylvania at the turn of the century Large areas of the state were undistributed or undeveloped in 1790, and many other sections were thinly populated.

The state adopted generous land policies, distributed free “Donation Lands” to Revolutionary veterans and offered other lands at reasonable prices to actual settlers. After two decades, these homesteaders were in need of better transportation to get their goods to market. Initially waterways was the means of transportation . And if there wasn’t a watercourse going where men wanted it, they set about digging a canal until there was one.

With the success of the famed Erie Canal in the early nineteenth century canals began filling up the landscape. By 1860 there were more than 4000 miles of canals in the United States, mostly dug by immigrants, a large number of whom were Irish. The Pennsylvania Main Line Canal along the Susquehanna River connected Baltimore to the rich heartland of Pennsylvania.

But there was competition for the canals in the form of railroads. It’s a common fate that by the time a technology matures in this case canals its replaced by another. But the railroads began by seeking to augment canals. By driving a railhead to a canal, even larger areas could ship their goods to markets that were far away and hungry for their goods.

That was the case with the Columbia-Philadelphia Railroad, which build a line west from Philadelphia to connect with the Main Line canal in the late 1820s. And naturally, the people who did the building were often Irish. Many were veterans of other railway and canal projects, and they did their work with pick and shovel.

The man in charge
It was in these conditions that in March, 1828 William Hasel Wilson came to be employed as a rod man on the survey team working to locate the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad west from the Schuykill River.

He had been born in 1811 in South Carolina to a family of Scottish American engineers. In one of those ironies of history, his grandfather, as a British officer in the Revolutionary War, planned the British attack on Charleston, S.C. His father, also an engineer, planned the American defense of the city during the War of 1812.

Wilson came to Philadelphia when his father was hired by the state as an engineer, and he studied at the High School of the Franklin Institute. As a teen joined the engineering corps established by his father to survey canal and railway sites through Chester and Lancaster Counties.

In 1829 he became assistant engineer in charge of the construction of 20 miles of the road in the Eastern Section which ran from Broad Street to Coatesville and held that position until in 1831 he became Principal Assistant Engineer in charge of construction for the entire eastern section, consisting of 40 miles of track.

Wilson attempted to use an unusual technology which he has seen used in Baltimore by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. “The track then in progress of construction was formed of granite sills about eight by fifteen inches square, in various lengths from six feet upwards, bedded on broken stone in trenches. Upon the sills were placed flat iron bars, two and a half inches wide by five-eighths -of an inch in thickness, which were secured by spikes driven into wooden plugs inserted into holes drilled into the stone sills,” he said in a biography he wrote in 1896.

That pamphlet was about his life with the Columbia-Philadelphia Railroad and its successor, the Pennsylvania, for which he eventually became chief engineer for construction before becoming the president of the Philadelphia and Erie Railroad Company.

Preparing this roadway and laying track wasn’t easy as the right of way ran up from the river and along a ridge line, cutting through what was then called the Conestoga Valley into the Great Valley at what was called then simply, The Gap.

Near the gap Wilson experimented with using granite for laying track. “Six miles were laid with granite sills, on the Baltimore and Ohio plan, as an experiment,” he said The other 18 miles were constructed with wooden string pieces plated with flat iron bars, to expedite the opening of the road, and the remainder with stone blocks and edge rails. “The stone blocks, about eighteen inches square and twelve inches deep, were placed three feet apart between centers, upon broken stone in trenches of the depth of twelve inches well rammed,” he said.

Unfortunately, the granite wasn’t a good solution, because it was too stiff, the tracks would shift, causing accidents. They were also very labor intensive. “It was found necessary to keep men with hammers constantly patrolling the track to tighten the wedges,” he said. According to Wilson this track cost about thirteen thousand dollars per mile.

After a few years, the tracks were replaced and the unusual edge rails, which required constant adjustment were replaced by flat-footed or T-rails. “This which form had been introduced by Mr. Robert L. Stevens on the Camden and Amboy Railroad, and wooden cross-ties took the place of the stone blocks. Experience has demonstrated that great rigidity in a railroad track is objectionable,” Wilson said.

They buried their own
It was hard, dangerous work, and unfortunately came to represent what was a common expression heard among the railroad workers: “an Irishman was buried under every tie.” Today, near that gap between the two valleys lies a small cemetery where some 50 Irish workers are buried. The stones used to surround the small 15×15 ft. plot are those same stone blocks William Wilson used to lay the first tracks. The men died of Black Diphtheria.

As that worker’s expression states, it wasn’t unusual for railway workers to die. Most were buried with benefit of a cemetery or stone, and that would have been the fate of this group of dead Irishmen except they died under the care of nuns send from the Sisters of Charity in Baltimore. This wasn’t out of gracious concern for the men, it was because they had a highly contagious disease, and nobody would go near them.

Dan McGuire is an avid historian of the East Whiteland Township as well as longtime resident. “I haven’t moved four miles in 50 years,” he says. He owns Greenskeepers, Inc. which is a landscaping company and has been very involved in the East Whiteland Historical Society. he and his father rediscovered the site. “We read a St. Patrick’s Day article about the Irish cemetery, and my father, Father Burke, from the St Norbert’s Parish went to take a look,” he says. “That was in the early 1990s.”

The site was overgrown
“You could walk right by it and not even notice it,” he says. Thanks to the efforts of one other history buff, however, the cemetery was at least remembered. That was due to M.W. Clement who was the assistant supervisor at the Paoli train station.

“He came upon the cemetery during an inspection. At that time in 1909 there was a wooden post and rail fence. It was nearly destroyed so Clement rebuilt the site using more of the granite stones to mark the plot,” he says. “After it was refurbished he had it dedicated as a “real” cemetery.” He wanted other railway workers to remember those who had died creating the railroad that now employed him.

Clement eventually became a vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which had purchased the Columbia-Philadelphia Railroad in 1857.

That was McGuire’s motivation, as well, so beginning in 1991 he began cleaning up the site, and in 1994 he and friends John Delaney and Werner Liebig cleared the site, bringing stones back up and placing them in the wall. They then put a sign mounted high in front of the site to avoid vandalism. It faces the tracks. “I wanted to make it visible to the railroad — so railroad people would see it on a regular basis,” he says.

McGuire’s research even helped out the Center for Disease Control. “They contacted me when I stated that I thought the men had died of Black Diphtheria. Everybody wrote it up as cholera which had killed the men,” he says. McGuire thought there was a discrepancy about whether it was cholera. So he got some help to review the notes and determined it was diphtheria. “The CDC people were very glad to find that out, because they had never found an outbreak of cholera in the U.S.”

The claims about the number of men buried there runs as high as 57, but short of excavating the site there is no proof.

The workers lived a hard life
These were hard times, even a regular day in their lives was harsh beyond measure in today’s world. The work was brutal and backbreaking, Often the conditions dangerous and miserable. Many of the concepts that we take for granted today would be hanging offences if stated aloud such as companies were responsible for the well-being and safety of their men.

On-the-job safety was each man’s responsibility. They, like today’s young men, weren’t always focused on safety, often falling prey to their egos and the dares of their mates. This was true even into the Twentieth Century. When workers on the Empire State Building were required to wear hard hats and safety lines they complained they were insults to a worker’s skill.

But in the 1800s if a worker was killed or injured, it was his fault and he was summarily fired. Crippled workers and widows were left to themselves, even by their coworkers. In spite of the good wages the railroads paid, there wasn’t much money to go around. Add in working six-day a week from dawn to dusk and there wasn’t much time for anything extra.

Standards of hygiene were horrific by today’s standards. It wasn’t that people didn’t care, they didn’t connect hygiene with health. In fact, bathing was considered dangerous to you health, and probably many did get sick, or even die, after exposing their bodies to the clime.

For most working people, their entire day and night was spent in what we’d consider too cold or too hot conditions. Clean clothes were the mark of a dandy or rich man. A laborer was proud of the stains of his trade and often wore them for a season without removing them.

What this all added up to was a healthcare nightmare. Diseases that have been completely controlled now would routinely sweep the lands, killing thousands.

That is what happened to these workers. Near the cemetery is a place called Dead Horse Hollow, where the carcasses of horses and mules were thrown. This couldn’t have made this a healthy place. When the men began to get sick, they were shunned by their fellow workers, who didn’t want to get sick as well.

Bishop Kendrick, who was Philadelphia’s bishop at the time asked the Sisters of Charity in Baltimore for two nun/nurses to care for the men. He was probably encouraged by the railroad management because of the fear of further disease. “The men had low grade fevers and sore throats. But there throats would swell up and kill them,” he says.

After the fever had run its course the people were so afraid that the nuns carried the disease that they had to walk the 28 miles to the Sister’s “house” in Philadelphia.