The early 1830s was a harsh time in Ireland's history. Its majority-Catholic population was largely made up of peasants who rented land from Anglo-Irish or English landlords. Paying steep rents, often to absentee landlords, meant that much of the best of what the Irish raised or grew was sold abroad, leaving the poorest of the Irish to subsist largely on water and potatoes, a crop that failed with escalating frequency through the 1820s and 1830s. Emigration would explode when the Great Famine hit in 1845, but when Philip Duffy needed to hire laborers in 1832, there were already plenty of immigrant Irish workers landing in America in need of work.
The Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad (later incorporated into the Pennsylvania Railroad) was then being built as part of the Main Line of Public Works, which would ultimately stretch from Philadelphia past Columbia, Pa., and on to Pittsburgh. Duffy, himself an Irish immigrant, had a contract to level a rough patch of land on Mile 59 of the line, a stretch that would become part of today's Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority's R5 line.
Notice to the passengers of the John Stamp
Duffy met his new crew at the Philadelphia docks. Men from Londonderry, Donegal, Leitrim and Tyrone had just arrived on the John Stamp
, a 401-ton barque sailing from Londonderry. Many of them would form Duffy's crew. They were mostly Gaelic speakers and mostly Catholic, arriving in a time of escalating tension over the increasing influx of Irish Catholic immigrants into the U.S. Duffy and his Philadelphia and Columbia supervisor, William B. Mitchell, hired men arriving on the John Stamp
to level the land 30 miles west of Philadelphia, making a "cut" into the area's heavy shale and clay.
For this back-breaking work on the railroad's toughest stretch of land, turning a new technology into the backbone of 19th-century American industry and commerce, these hungry, young immigrants would get 50 cents a day, plus whiskey.
But these 57 men would not survive the job.