Filed Under Transportation

Hell's Half Acre

Reputed to be a bootlegging tavern where numerous illegal and unsavory transactions occurred in the 1920s, the former inn at Hell's Half Acre now serves as the Canal Visitor Center for the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Nineteenth-century life in the Cuyahoga Valley revolved around the Ohio & Erie Canal, the most important means of transportation between the valley, Cleveland, and Akron between 1827 and 1840. Completed in 1832, the Ohio & Erie Canal transformed how local farmers moved and purchased products. Using the canal, area farmers could ship their products, including corn, wheat, and whiskey, for an average price of five cents per ton, (as opposed to fifteen or twenty cents per ton by wagon). This connection to city markets also meant that the canal boats could bring back new luxuries for valley residents, including cloth, coffee, tea, and glass.

In addition to the exchange of commodities, the canal boats also brought visitors to the valley's small and formerly isolated communities. The Village of Peninsula, for example, thrived as a canal and mercantile town, receiving money and fame as canal travelers stopped by for some leisurely hours in the local dance hall or tavern. Hell's Half Acre, a tavern and inn located at Lock 38 along the canal, represented one of many local businesses that took advantage of the new clientele. During its 150 years, the building at Hell's Half Acre served as a tavern, store, private residence, boardinghouse, and blacksmith shop. Around 1837, Moses Gleeson purchased the property and structure to take advantage of the canal traffic.

The Ohio & Erie Canal shaped almost every aspect of valley life, changing both economic and social fabrics. The canal connected the Cuyahoga Valley to a national transportation system that stimulated growth and specialization for local farms. Instead of growing diverse sets of produce and grains, farmers chose one or two crops to grow in large quantities, such as oats for the Schumacher cereal mills in nearby Akron. Linked to New York's Erie Canal, the Ohio & Erie Canal also brought new residents to Ohio, which became the third most populated state in the 1840s. Irish and German immigrants also travelled to the Western Reserve as canal diggers, working long hours for little pay. Now a part of the larger state and regional economy, Cuyahoga Valley farmers learned about new equipment and scientific farming practices that arrived through new residents, farm journals, and agricultural fairs.

Although the Ohio & Erie Canal transformed daily life in the Cuyahoga Valley, the canal reached its zenith by the last decades of the nineteenth century. Unable to compete with the Pennsylvania & Ohio Canal and the Cleveland & Pittsburgh Railroad, producers used the canal less and less. Railroads, which skyrocketed in production in the 1860s, shipped products faster and with less dependency on weather conditions. A catastrophic flood in 1913 caused the final destruction of the valley's canals.

While no longer a tavern or inn, Hell's Half Acre remains an important location for valley visitors to learn about the history of the Ohio & Erie Canal. Presently the Canal Visitor Center, the structure hosts interpretive rangers for the National Park Service who conduct daily canal boat and lock demonstrations, as well as educate visitors about the canal's important role in the history of the Cuyahoga Valley.

Audio

Shady Reputation Interpretive ranger Rebecca Jones describes the history of the Canal Visitor Center and how it received its shady reputation. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
New Money and People Rebecca Jones, interpretive ranger for the national park, describes the changes that the Ohio & Erie Canal brought to the Cuyahoga Valley. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
Goods and Ideas In addition to new people, the Ohio & Erie Canal brought new goods and ideas flowing past the doors of valley residents. Park Ranger Rebecca Jones further explains the impact of the canal. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Images

Sunset on the Canal Canal Boats on the Ohio & Erie Canal shipped products and people between Cleveland, the Cuyahoga Valley, and Akron. Entire families often lived on these boats, including children. Photo courtesy of the Cleveland State Library Special Collections.
Hell's Half Acre Tavern Moses Gleeson purchased Hell's Half Acre in 1837 to start an inn and tavern. Several taverns opened in the Cuyahoga Valley throughout the mid-nineteenth century in response to heavy canal traffic. Photo courtesy of the Cleveland State Library Special Collections.
Canal Visitor Center The Canal Visitor Center, previously Hell's Half Acre, now serves as a museum with pictures, videos, and demonstrations to teach the history of the Ohio & Erie Canal. Photo by Carolyn Conklin.
Lock 38 Lock 38 is one of 44 locks along the Ohio & Erie Canal. This particular lock remained in use from 1827 through 1913, and could raise or lower canal boats about 9 feet. This photo shows Lock 38 before the National Park Service rehabilitated the lock gates for educational demonstrations. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey / Historic American Engineering Record.
Lock 38 Today The Ohio & Erie Canal consisted of 44 stair-step locks that carried canal boats uphill and downhill. When traveling from Lake Erie to Akron's summit, canal boats moved up in elevation by 395 feet. These lock gates closed on either side of the canal boat before water was pumped in or drained out to raise or lower the boat. Photo by Carolyn Conklin.
Teaching History At the Canal Visitor Center today, interpretive park rangers teach national park visitors about how the Ohio & Erie Canal transformed life in the Cuyahoga Valley. Photo by Carolyn Conklin.

Location

Metadata

Carolyn Zulandt, “Hell's Half Acre,” Cleveland Historical, accessed January 21, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/343.