The 17th Hole known as Hell's Half Acre at Purgatory Golf Club Indiana

Hell’s Half Acre

by | Apr 3, 2021 | Destinations, geology, North America, Travel and Education

Identity of Place

When I began researching places named Hell’s Half Acre because of their difficult terrain, I had no idea that so many places would come up. After thinking about it, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I won’t cover all of them in this post. I decided to highlight 5 and give some background on the term itself.

To begin with, the term Hell’s Half Acre is familiar to most of us in America. It’s a nickname frequently occurring throughout the history of the US. It was often used to label places not always located on maps but known about by reputation.

Where is Hell’s, Half Acre?

Early on, the name referred to places known for dubious activities, such as drinking, gambling, and prostitution. In a nutshell, your “red-light districts” in cities and towns. The media loved to tease their readers with news of unseemly events in these places. They aimed to tantalize readerships while also condemning the place. This seemed to placate Victorian attitudes. Later, the moral sentiment was ignored altogether.

Locations with areas named Hell’s Half Acre can be found in Maine, Texas, Colorado, Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, New York, Minnesota, and Louisiana. Even part of Honolulu’s Chinatown was the inspiration for a 1954 movie of the same name. Stones River National Battlefield, a Civil War battle site in Tennessee, is another among others.

How a place earns its name

The term Hell’s Half Acre gained momentum during westward expansion and the gold rush eras. This is likely due to the conflicting elements and lifestyles in these new places, which often had diverse populations. There was a prevalence of men working in hellish conditions. Juxtapose this against their penchant to “let go” with women, drinking, and gambling when they infrequently had time off. Add a shortage of law enforcement, and you have a perfect storm for debauchery and a reputation to match.

Other times we see the name Hell’s Half Acre describing a foreboding, natural landscape. These areas are characterized by difficult terrain, which is dangerous or arduous to navigate. Today, we name places Hell’s Half Acre to designate challenges such as the 17th hole at the Purgatory Golf Club in Indiana or a ski run at Berthoud Ski Area in Colorado.

5 Places known as “Hell’s Half Acre”

Hell’s Half Acre Wyoming

Hell's Half Acre near Casper Wyoming
Hell’s Half Acre near Casper Wyoming

This geologic area is a large scarp, a steep slope, or long cliff formed by faulting and erosion. The site is located about 40 miles (64 km) west of Casper, Wyoming, on 20/26. This geologic anomaly is 320 acres of alkali, bogs, deep ravines, caves, rock formations, and hard-packed eroded earth. A fun fact: this particular Hell’s Half Acre was used as the location for the fictional planet of Klendathu in the movie Starship Troopers (information per Wikipedia). Other names attributed to this location are, “The Devil’s Kitchen”, “The Pits of Hades”, and “The Baby Grand Canyon”. More geologic information on Hell’s Half Acre can be found here.

Hell’s Half Acre Idaho Falls, Idaho

Helll's Half Acre Idaho Falls Idaho
Hell’s Half Acre Idaho Falls Idaho

This Lava Field, known as Hell’s Half Acre, is in Idaho Falls, Idaho. It is a Wilderness Study Area. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees the 66,000 acres of public lands here. The 5200-year-old lava flow looks like a  moonscape with deep crevices and fairly sparse vegetation. As well, there are ten circular pits and two large lava tubes located here. Two major lava flows, each about 6.2 miles (10.0 km) long by 3.1 miles (5.0 km) wide, extend from the main lava field south and southwest. While studying aerial photographs of the site, scientists discovered a 328-yard (300 m) long eruptive fissure partly buried under lava flows. This fissure is just 437 yards (400 m) from the northwest boundary of the lava field. While visiting, you will find numerous trails for hiking through the area.

The Hell’s Half Acre lava plain is home to various plant species. Among these are primrose, ferns, mosses, rabbitbrush, Indian paintbrush, grasses, penstemon, prickly pear cactus, sagebrush, and juniper bush. Common animal and bird species found here include coyotes, eagles, mule deer, elk, prairie falcons, pronghorn, red foxes, red-tailed hawks, and sage grouse.  More information can be found on the BLM website.

Hell’s Half Acre Hot Springs Arkansas

Rock Quarry near Hell's Half Acre in Arkansas
Rock Quarry near Hell’s Half Acre in Arkansas

This Hell’s Half Acre is an area of exposed rocks and boulders in a clearing near Hot Springs, Arkansas. In the 1870s, there was a hotel nearby, and guests could walk a trail to see the site. It was often referred to as a “bottomless pit.” Not only that, but there were also many fanciful stories about a demon being trapped in a cave below. This certainly added to its mystique and attraction. The location appeared in postcards and was somewhat of a local natural wonder. It’s now surrounded by private property.

This site was long believed to be an extinct volcano. However, there is no volcanic activity in the area. While the nearby Hot Springs are heated through a geothermal process, this probably added to this speculation. Additionally, the rocks are not volcanic but chert common to the Ouachita Mountains. They were important to indigenous people for making spearheads, arrowheads, and other tools. Because of many blanks and rejected cores found near the site, it is now theorized this may be an ancient quarry of Native American people. Hell’s Half Acre is a talus hillside (a slope formed by an accumulation of broken rocks) located on Indian Mountain, about four miles northeast of downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas. 

The Battle of Stones River Tennessee or “Hell’s Half Acre”

Stones River National Battlefield photo by Steven Markos

The Battle of Stones River Tennessee, one of the bloodiest conflicts of the Civil War, began on the last day of 1862. It was important militarily and politically for the Union Army. As well, it changed the people who lived and fought here. The site of this Battle is known as Hell’s Half Acre.

1862 was coming to a close, and President Abraham Lincoln needed a military victory. Also, the Union Army was stalled. As well, a feeling of discouragement spread across the United States following the terrible defeat at Fredericksburg. A victory was needed to bolster morale and support the Emancipation Proclamation, which was to go into effect on January 1, 1863.

“It was a miserable time and place to fight a major battle,” explains National Park Service historian Charles Spearman of the Stones River National Battlefield.

“To begin with, the terrain around Stones River is full of rocky limestone outcroppings and dense cedar thickets. This made communications and the movement of troops and artillery a serious problem. Further, the weather was cold and wet, and the roads were muddy. The river was higher than usual, and the temperatures were freezing, resulting in sleet and hail. In the end, “New Year’s Eve at Stones River was the single bloodiest day of the war in Tennessee,” Spearman says. “There were more than 23,000 casualties before the fighting ended. 

Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park

Aerial view of Excelsior Geyser and Grand Prismatic Spring in Midway Geyser Basin; Jim Peaco; June 22, 2006; Catalog #20386d; Original #IT8M4075
Aerial view of Excelsior Geyser and Grand Prismatic Spring in Midway Geyser Basin by Jim Peaco

This area in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, contains a small collection of mammoth-sized springs. While Midway is actually part of the Lower Geyser Basin, it became known as Midway because of its location between Lower and Upper geyser basins’ main features. 

In fact, the author Rudyard Kipling visited Yellowstone in 1889. He immortalized this basin by referring to it as “Hell’s Half Acre.” We still know it by that name. Indeed, Midway is small in size. However, it possesses two of the largest hot springs in the world. First, Grand Prismatic Spring, nearly 370 feet in diameter, sits upon a large mound surrounded by small step-like terraces. Second, Excelsior Geyser last erupted nearly 300 feet high before the 1900s. It is now a dormant geyser and is considered a hot spring. This spring discharges more than 4050 gallons of boiling water per minute.

Other colorful springs include Turquoise and Indigo springs, known for their pale and dark blue colors. You will find small, isolated, pristine springs and mud pots across the Firehole River from Excelsior and Grand Prismatic springs. Also, The Rabbit Creek drainage possesses some colorful and unusual features, most unnamed. Caution should be exercised exploring this vicinity since the ground is unstable and trails are not maintained. 

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