The night sky glowed a fiery red. Flames seethed, smoke writhed and acrid soot smudged the air.
If this wasn’t the devil’s domain, it certainly resembled it.
Hell’s Half Acre was one of the toughest neighborhoods in Akron during the late 19th century. A quarter-mile south of East Exchange Street, the rugged district sprang up around South Main Street, West Thornton Street, Washington Street and McCoy Street.
At the center of the vortex was the Akron Iron Co., commonly known as the Akron Rolling Mills, which operated day and night, creating the raw materials for Akron’s farm-machinery industry.
The blast furnace and rolling mill employed more than 350 brawny men, who risked their lives in the searing, molten atmosphere for $2 a day.
The complex stood near the present-day site of GOJO Industries in the former headquarters of B.F. Goodrich. In those years, South Broadway ended at the edge of downtown and East Bartges Street was known as Iron Street.
Hell’s Half Acre, also known as Devil’s Half Acre, owed its name to the 24-hour inferno at the iron factory. The surrounding community, where most of the workers made their homes, took on a devil-may-care attitude.
Iron laborers worked hard, lived hard and drank hard. Dozens of saloons sprouted in the neighborhood, and bare-knuckled brawls were as common as bleary hangovers.
“In those days, all the old grocery stores had a bar in the rear or a barrel of whisky and ale in the cellar,” Akron historian John A. Botzum recalled in 1928. “Fights were everyday occurrences. No man was a good inhabitant of Devil’s Half Acre unless he was ready for a scrap.”
So fearsome was the district that patrol officers were known to walk the beat in twos or threes.
Priests sometimes were called to help break up scuffles.
According to one famous tale, a naive businessman opened a soft-drink stand across the railroad tracks from the rolling mills. Residents sampled the product, found it lacking and proceeded to tear down the booth, carting home the wood in wheelbarrows, baby carriages and feed sacks.
Many of the neighborhood’s residents were immigrants from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. They often fought among themselves, but saved their finest battles for outsiders who dared to encroach on their turf.
For example, German immigrants, who resided in the Goosetown neighborhood at South and Grant streets, found themselves in deep trouble if they ventured too far west.
“Nearby the Germans lived but no Dutchman was ever allowed to invade the Devil’s Half Acre,” Botzum noted. “If he attempted to do so, war would be on.”
Only on the athletic field could animosities be temporarily set aside. Truces were declared for sporting events between rival athletic clubs. Winners won bragging rights and glory for their neighborhoods.
The following day, hostilities resumed.
Hell’s Half Acre resident Edward Lavery literally fought for his life while growing up. He never weighed more than 110 pounds, but he packed a mean punch. As a teenager, he became a professional boxer, recording 17 wins and defeating U.S. flyweight champion Eddie Rosner.
“I broke my hands repeatedly,” Lavery once told the Beacon Journal.
“I lost maybe six or seven fights that way. Bust up my hands so bad I had to quit.”
His toughness was rewarded in 1963, when he was inducted into the Summit County Sports Hall of Fame.
Gang battle recalled
In a 1926 interview with the Beacon Journal, Hezekiah “Hez” Russell, superintendent of Akron street cleaning, provided a harrowing account of his violent upbringing in the neighborhood.
“The Irish, Welsh and other gangs were continually fighting, and you had to be careful if you even walked in the Half Acre,” he said. “I went to the old Thornton school and even the kids were tough. There was one bully at the school who was particularly terrible.
“Another youngster and myself planned to ‘double team’ him, jump on him at once and give him a good trimming. Well, I started it, but when I looked around for my buddy, he was gone. In a short time, there were 200 people around, including many members of the gang to which my opponent belonged.
“I probably would have been massacred if it hadn’t been for Tom Conway, leader of the gang, who threatened to lick anyone who interfered. It ended by the bully taking a licking, but it was some fight.”
An unexpected event led to the demise of Hell’s Half Acre: The Akron Iron Co. burned to the ground in July 1897. Arson was suspected, but no one was arrested. The owners collected $75,000 in insurance — about $2.5 million today — and decided not to rebuild.
The rough-and-tumble neighborhood drifted without its anchor. Iron workers found jobs at other factories, including the up-and-coming rubber plants, and moved away.
As the community retrenched, Hell’s Half Acre found God.
Five churches arose in the neighborhood: St. Mary’s at West Thornton and Coburn Street, Calvary Evangelical at Coburn and Thornton, Main Street Methodist Episcopal near Thornton, First Church of the Brethren on Coburn, and St. Paul’s Lutheran at Thornton and May streets.
Residents also welcomed the arrival of Allen Elementary School, South High School and St. Mary’s School.
Meanwhile, B.F. Goodrich, Miller Rubber Co. and Hardware & Supply Co. became neighborhood fixtures, employing thousands.
Although “Goosetown” is fondly remembered among Akron’s older residents, “Hell’s Half Acre” has been exorcised from most memory banks.
As John A. Botzum so eloquently put it: “The old devil has long since died and all the little devils have grown up and are now among the saints.”
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.