Anyone familiar with Bangor’s history has heard of the Devil’s Half Acre, alias Hell’s Half Acre or The Acre. History buffs know that Satan’s playground was a half mythical center for merriment and mayhem, a place where loggers, sailors and other workingmen gathered to spend their cash on whiskey and women. Many of these men were transients, often immigrants, who traveled with jobs and the seasons, but they always seemed to be able to find their way to The Acre.
Finding the area today, however, is a harder chore because of changes in the landscape as well as all the imprecise or muddled descriptions that have been published over the years. Was it on Harlow Street? Exchange Street? Hancock Street? Or somewhere else?
Further adding to the confusion is a map published in 1899 in the book “The Temperance Problem and Social Reform” by Joseph Rowntree and Arthur Sherwell showing saloons located all over the downtown on both sides of the Kenduskeag Stream. It’s clear that these illegal saloons were scattered almost everywhere, even though prohibition in Maine started before the Civil War and stretched doggedly into the era of federal prohibition in the 1920s.
Some people believe The Acre must have been a mythical spot, migrating around the city from neighborhood to neighborhood depending on the number of saloons located there. But it’s clear that a century ago Bangoreans knew exactly where The Acre was. The title was more than a metaphor used to label unsavory neighborhoods generally.
In my reading of old Bangor newspapers for this column, I’ve found a number of references to The Acre pinpointing exactly where it was located in 1909 and 1910. Although its unofficial boundaries might have expanded or contracted a bit over the years, I do not believe its general location changed for many years, if at all. The editors of these news stories were often old-timers who knew the city and its history well.
Here are a half-dozen references I found in the Bangor Daily News in 1909 and 1910 that all place The Acre in basically the same location — on Front and Broad streets near the intersection of Union Street and near where the Kenduskeag Stream flows into the Penobscot River. As will be seen, they coincide nicely with efforts by other historians to define The Acre’s precise location at earlier dates.
ITEM 1: When hot dog vendor Samuel Alpert was blinded by a firecracker on the morning of the Fourth of July, 1909, members of a gang of thugs were arrested. They were described as “part of The Acre crowd, that is residents of Front Street and vicinity,” according to the Bangor Daily News on Aug. 2.
ITEM 2: Armour & Co. was constructing a new building at the corner of Union and Front streets. “This seems to mark the beginning of the doing away with ‘The Acre,’ long a familiar spot, and it seems very probable that the time is not far distant when other buildings will spring up upon the sites of smaller buildings,” said the Bangor Daily News on Oct. 23, 1909. The story included a drawing of the planned building. The same building can be seen today across from the Sea Dog Brewing Co., then the site of the Eastern Steamship Co.’s terminal.
ITEM 3: Mr. And Mrs. William C. Asher, evangelists, conducted a meeting in the Devil’s Half Acre in Leo Tanguay’s pool room on Broad Street. “The big room was decorated with a pool table, a cigar stand and a peanut machine, and the walls were decorated by a few score men who drifted in out of the cold,” said the Bangor Daily News on Feb. 8, 1910.
ITEM 4: In June 1910, city officials revoked the licenses of several hotels and boarding houses alleged to sell liquor. One of the most prominent was the Scandinavian Hotel at 219 Broad St., “a famous resort of lumbermen and sailors. … Its closing will make a decided change in the complexion of the Acre,” commented the Bangor Daily News on June 14.
ITEM 5: More Fourth of July mayhem that same year provides us with another clear indicator of the location. “James Kelley was celebrating during the afternoon in the Acre, at the foot of Broad street, and blew off the thumb of his right hand and smashed some of the fingers by holding a cannon cracker in his hand when it exploded,” said the Bangor Daily News on July 5.
ITEM 6: “DIPTHERIA FOUND IN THE ACRE,” announced a headline on Nov. 16, 1910, in the Bangor Daily News. A girl living at 223½ Broad St. had been diagnosed with the illness. The house was quarantined along with a pool room operated by the girl’s uncle.
These are the few references to the Devil’s Half Acre (accompanied by a definite address) that I have noticed while reading Bangor newspapers between 1903 and 1910. They all placed the area along Front and Broad streets on the west side of the Kenduskeag Stream near where it enters the Penobscot River.
Did the Acre move around? Several Bangor Whig & Courier newspaper items dating from the 1870s collected by historian Dick Shaw indicate that the area was in the same place 40 years previously. A couple of examples will suffice. One of them, appearing on Aug. 6, 1870, referred to a liquor raid “near the Steamboat Wharf [on Front Street], devoted in common parlance to his Satanic majesty as ‘Devil’s Half Acre.’”
Another reference, on Oct. 29, 1870, placed The Acre on the premises of businessmen Charles Dolan, John McCann and Thomas Gallagher, where the authorities had seized liquor. According to former Bangor City Engineer John Frawley, who was related to all three of these Irishmen, Gallagher’s house and store was located at 16 Union St., Dolan’s business was at the corner of Broad and Union streets, and McCann was on lower Broad Street.
Frawley said he had been told by his grandfather that Devil’s Half Acre referred to the lower Union Street/Broad Street/Front Street area, during the late 1800s. This is in the same area noted in the news stories I found in 1909 and 1910, and that Dick Shaw found in the 1870s.
In his introduction to the third volume of John Edwards Godfrey’s journals, Bangor historian James Vickery placed The Acre in about the same place as the aforementioned newspaper stories. Without offering any evidence, he said it was “bounded by the waterfront, along Front St. to Pickering Square, down May Street, to the mouth of the Kenduskeag, and later across it to lower sections of City Point [where Union Station was built].” He attributed its location to the expansion of railroad lines, which “depressed” the area. (The first trains from the west arrived in Bangor in the 1850s.)
Thus, I think we can safely say that while its boundaries may have expanded and contracted a bit over the years, spilling across the stream on occasion, the Devil’s Half Acre existed in roughly the same part of Bangor at least between 1870 and 1910 and probably for some years before and after those dates.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.