Podcast 332 – Hell’s Half Acre

In the mid-1800s, Hell’s Half Acre on the New London Turnpike in West Greenwich, Rhode Island, was full of drinking, gambling, fights, murder, and more.

In Episode 332 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger hike into the woods of West Greenwich, Rhode Island, to explore what’s left of Hell’s Half Acre. This small section of forest was once home to taverns and gin mills full of fights, gambling, murder, and more. This was once the Red Light District of the old New London Turnpike. Today a cellar hole and the story are all that’s left.

Read the episode transcript.


Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Theme Music by: John Judd

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*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.

RAY: This is a pleasant enough trail through the woods here in West Greenwich, Rhode Island, Jeff.
JEFF: It is. It’s pretty flat and wide. Not very challenging.
RAY: You could almost drive a car down parts of this trail.
JEFF: Or at the very least a horse and buggy…
RAY: Ahhhh okay… I’m guessing we’re some place almost forgotten and this used to be some kind of road?
JEFF: Yeah, that’s it. And not just any road. One of the nation’s first interstates! And I’m telling you, Ray. For two beer-swilling good-time guys like us, this is EXACTLY the place we’d want to be if it was… you know… about 180 years ago.
RAY: Oh?
JEFF: Though it’s all woods and trails now, back then there were taverns full of drinking, fights, gambling, debauchery, and more that the land has forever earned the nickname… Hell’s Half Acre.
JEFF: Hey, I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to Episode 332 of the New England Legends podcast.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Thanks for joining us on the quest to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. Did you know most of our story leads come from you? This one did! Thanks to Chris O’Connor for reaching out to us after a recent hike to the area. If you’ve got a story you think we should check out, please reach out to us anytime through our Web site.
JEFF: Quick reminder that our 2024 Zombie Prom is coming up Saturday, February 17th at the Doubletree Hilton in Milford, Massachusetts. Tickets are just $25 ahead of time and all profits go to benefit Community Harvest Project. This is a great organization I’ve been supporting for over a decade. A volunteer farm that grows natural healthy foods for local foodbanks. Plus, the Zombie Prom is a ridiculously good time with Ray and myself, plus all of our friends.
RAY: If you were there last year you know what a blast we had. There’s even some room deals available at the Doubletree if you want to spend the night. Plus, we need to crown a new zombie queen and king this year! (BEAT) Okay, we’ll get back to Hell’s Half Acre right after this word from our sponsor.
RAY: So I take in Hell’s Half Acre in West Greenwich, Rhode Island, must have been the red light district back in the day?
JEFF: Pretty much. Do you know where the term “red light district” comes from?
RAY: I don’t, but I bet you’re going to tell me.
JEFF: I bet you’re right. Back in the 1890s in Dodge City, Kansas, there were many sex workers plying their trade in cribs near the train station. Railroad workers would leave their red lanterns by the doors to these cribs so they could grab them and be on their way in short notice. There were often so many red lights that… well… you get it.
RAY: Got it. But here in Hell’s Half Acre, it’s mostly woods and trails today. But by the trailhead here at the intersection of Congdon Mill Road and the old New London Turnpike Trail, there’s a cellar hole.
JEFF: That would have been one of these old establishments. It’s an interesting thing where and how towns pop up. It used to be towns and cities grew where there were seaports. Then along rivers where there was water and ways to move commerce. Later on, the railroad could create a town where one never could be before because suddenly there are people passing through new areas. And then later, major roads accomplished the same thing. That interconnectedness of travel, commerce, and opportunities meant towns and even cities could pop up in new places.
RAY: Makes sense.
JEFF: The reason Hell’s Half Acre was located right here has to do with the New London Turnpike.
RAY: Today the New London Turnpike is Route 3. It’s a 30-mile road that connects Providence, Rhode Island, to New London, Connecticut. It was built as an inland alternative to the Old Post Road that ran closer to the coast. It also cut about 12 miles off of the trip if you’re heading further west to say New York City. Before motorized cars, 12 miles meant hours of less travel.
JEFF: And the Old Post Road is also known as Route 1 today. That runs from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida.
RAY: It’s nothing new that when there’s construction, and a new influx of people passing through, then places like taverns and gin mills are going to pop up, and there will be sex workers moving in soon too.
JEFF: That’s how it’s worked for centuries. Today, this section of the New London Turnpike was obviously abandoned and rerouted to the more modern Route 3. But there was a time when this place was raucous. So let’s head back to 1831… and party.
RAY: It’s the spring of 1831, and traffic along the New London Turnpike here in Greenwich, Rhode Island, is brutal!
JEFF: It is! This must have been the third horse and wagon we’ve seen pass by here in the last half hour!
RAY: The toll road was first proposed over a decade ago by a private firm. The region is expanding. Towns are growing, and this inland route will help towns like Greenwich expand thanks to more direct travel to nearby cities. The toll fees go to maintain the road and the profits of the company—a road three rods wide road, I might add.
JEFF: Three rods?!
RAY: About 50 feet wide. Building and maintaining the road takes workers.
JEFF: The toll for a carriage drawn by one horse is 12 and a half cents. Well worth it to save hours off your trip.
RAY: The West Greenwich Gatehouse is one of the stops on the New London Turnpike. Located about 20 miles from downtown Providence that could be about a day’s ride for your horse and carriage. If you’re traveling all the way to New London, or beyond, it’s a good place to stop for the evening.
JEFF: We could stop here. OR… if we’re looking for a little trouble… we might push it a few more miles down the New London Turnpike and stop at Hell’s Half Acre.
RAY: Let’s push ahead…
JEFF: Should we head inside, Ray?
RAY: This place looks dangerous!
JEFF: I agree. The respectable people stopped at the Gatehouse a few miles back. This place draws in more seedy characters.
RAY: Two beers please! (PAUSE) Thanks! Yeah… I like it here.
JEFF: Me too! Cheers!
RAY: Cheers!
RAY: Oooo! I wonder what that was about?
JEFF: Who knows! Probably just looked at him funny.
RAY: There’s a lot of working class folks in here. Men who maintain the roads. Drivers. Cargo haulers. And sure enough, there are some women in the bar who are available for a price.
JEFF: There’s another watering hole not far from here right on the Exeter, Rhode Island, line. It’s called the Ovenbird Tavern.
RAY: I’ve heard of that place! The tavern girls have been known to dance on the Turnpike to draw in stagecoaches.
JEFF: That’s the place!
RAY/JEFF: What was that?!
JEFF: Oh man! That guy just shot that other guy!
RAY: Maybe we should get outta here.
JEFF: I’m way ahead you!
JEFF: Let’s light out and stay lit outta here. (PAUSE) It’s situations like this that give this whole area the reputation and the name: Hell’s Half Acre…
RAY: And that will bring us back to today.
JEFF: Gambling, fights, murder, and the world’s oldest profession all going down right here.
RAY: You wouldn’t know it to see it today.
JEFF: No, you wouldn’t. Over the decades, the New London Turnpike toll road became less useful. Steamboats rose to prominence as far as transportation goes, then the railroad got bigger and more interconnected, later when automobiles became more commonplace, public roads made this toll road much less profitable, and soon it feel into pretty bad disrepair.
RAY: Automobiles became commonplace around the 1920s and 1930s. More and more roads were built, and the buildings and businesses that serviced these old toll roads for horses and wagons became obsolete. They shut down, and eventually rotted into the ground. Today the only sign much of anything was here is this old cellar hole by the trail head.
JEFF: Today the trail is popular for hikers and trail runners, but there’s not much else here. Hell’s Half Acre is now all woods and trails, but the name stuck. Now the whole region is part of Big River Management area. It’s accessible to the public, but if you come here during certain times of the year, you need to wear fluorescent orange because it’s hunting season, and you don’t want to become the next spirit resident of this…. ghost town.
RAY: No you don’t. We still have plenty of stories to cover and we need each and every one of you in our community. So stay safe out there.
JEFF: And that brings us to After the Legends where we trek deeper into this week’s story and sometimes veer off course. After the Legend is brought to you by our patreon patrons! We work for you. It takes a lot of time and money to bring you new stories each week. And our patrons help a ton with our hosting, travel, marketing, and equipment costs. It’s only $3 bucks per month, though some choose to give a little more. And for that you get access to our entire archive, early ad-free access to new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to here. Just head to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
To see some pictures of what’s left of Hell’s Half Acre, click on the link in our episode description or go to our Web site and click on Episode 332.

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Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.

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