Autumn sure makes Paducah look and feel like an idyllic place to live: dappled sunlight, crisp air, changing leaves, and the smell of wood smoke.
But some of those sections of town that you so enjoy this time of year—the parks, trails, shops, and neighborhoods—were once awfully creepy, haunted, and downright scary places. Some of them even sound like settings for horror movies. So with Halloween right around the corner, here’s a list of a few of those formerly frightening areas of town.
HELL’S HALF ACRE
Paducah was once a city defined by its “little towns.” Each neighborhood had its own name and personality: Lowertown, Uppertown, Littleville, Rowlandtown, Frenchtown, Jersey City, Avondale, Arcadia, and Mechanicsburg are just a few. In most instances, these “little towns” were perfectly nice places to live. But as you would expect, there were bad areas, too, and sometimes they weren’t that far away from action.
In the mid 1800’s, Paducah had the reputation of being a raucous port city, and many of the downtown businesses catered to transient rivermen: saloons, pool halls, and cheap hotel rooms. (With that in mind, it doesn’t take a big imagination to figure out how Maiden Alley originally got its name.)
Among all that iniquity was a particularly bad section, only about an eighth of a block, called Hell’s Half Acre, known to house the worst of the worst. One description from 1914 said it was “the home of the most notorious criminals and bruisers Paducah ever produced,” and so named for the numerous crimes committed there. Hell’s Half Acre was located close to downtown, at the corner of Washington and South Second Street, across from where the Carson Center is now. Toward the end of the 1800’s as the railroad came through that part of town, Hell’s Half Acre dissolved and the property became the Southern Hotel and then Iseman Wagon Yard. But as you can see from the accompanying 1897 newspaper article, it was still colloquially known as Hell’s Half Acre at the close of the 19th century.
Though Hell’s Half Acre was eventually populated by mostly legitimate businesses, the South Second Street area hung onto its shady status for a long while. Up until prohibition, saloons littered the area, most of them reputed to be rough and tumble. Brothels were also prominent on Second Street, which had the reputation among rivermen as being one of “the finest brothels in Ohio Valley” (Fairhurst Essays, pg. 369). Though this section of town was also a center for commerce, especially fresh produce coming into the freight house on Third Street, the bars and brothels established South Second Street as being an unsafe part of town, and thus it became locally known as Pistol Avenue. “The Freight House” Restaurant in Paducah has a signature drink on its menu commemorating the street’s history.
For some, the idea of a place called Dogtown might sound heavenly. But believe me, Dogtown was not the sort of place you wanted to go.
Dogtown was a small community that lived in destitute shacks and leaky shantyboats along the Ohio, primarily during the 1880s and 1890s. The exact location has been difficult to pinpoint. It was not part of any map and none of its citizens appear in our directories. But I suspect it was on the north side of town beyond the current location of the convention center, perhaps close to the downtown head of the Greenway Trail.
Dogtown’s residents were comprised primarily of outcasts: the impoverished, the mentally ill, the criminal, and others who for whatever reason didn’t work or live in town. Because of near constant run-ins with the law and “polite” society, there are numerous newspaper accounts that followed the exploits of the denizens of Dogtown. For example, an article from 1897 reported that the honorary “mayor” of Dogtown was arrested on a peace warrant for constantly threatening to cut his own throat (though it doesn’t appear as if he ever did).
But for all their troubles, Dogtown’s residents appeared to occupy a soft spot in Paducah’s heart. Newspaper reports often spoke of Dogtown’s people in a compassionate, almost endearing way. No, it wasn’t the human residents who caused problems. It was the namesake of the town that posed the real danger….the dogs!
The stray dogs that haunted Dogtown were truly frightening, feral creatures. They congregated after dark and hunted in packs in excess of two dozen. As one account stated, “their midnight orgies are dreadful to contemplate.” Following a flood of the river in 1897, Dogtown’s dogs were forced westward, away the river toward Paducah’s Frenchtown area. Reports followed of the dogs attacking stray cattle in Frenchtown. The Paducah Daily Sun stated that “all jump on the bovine at the same time and many cows have been left torn and bleeding and all but dead.”
The accompanying newspaper article from 1902 advertises the ultimate dissolution of the Dogtown area of Paducah.
MONKEY WRENCH PARK
This site is now one of Paducah’s most bucolic and fun-filled areas…Noble Park! But before it was called Noble Park, it was called Forest Park, and before it was called Forest Park the people called it Monkey Wrench Park.
Why did they call it Monkey Wrench Park?
Because one didn’t go into the area unless armed with a monkey wrench.
In the early 1900’s, this densely wooded area located far outside the city limits, and so was primarily populated by moonshiners and criminals. Thick overgrowth, twisting trails, and swampy traps provided a good hiding place for those who lived outside the law. It was widely known throughout Paducah, however, that a moonshine still operated in the gully behind what is now Noble Park’s amphitheater, and occasionally daring, young Paducahans would drive their buggies to the area in search of a little refreshment. But as stated in the “History of Paducah Parks” by Sue Dana Green (1978), the “results of mixing moonshine from a fruit jar and outlaws who found shelter in the woods” were so many muggings that “young folk called it Monkey Wrench Park” and learned not to go there without the protection of a heavy tool.
Perhaps this is the most outwardly pleasant sounding place on our list, conjuring images of rejuvenating waters. And as matter of fact, Paducah did advertise a couple of “healthful” mineral wells in its early days, one near the icehouse at the riverfront and one at the intersection of Fifth and Caldwell.
But in the late 19th century, the Hot Springs in Paducah did not refer to water flowing from the ground but from the “great volume of blood which flowed in that vicinity every night. “ Located on Kentucky Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets, Paducah’s “Hot Springs” was a dense collection of saloons and clubs where many of Paducah’s most dangerous citizens were known to congregate, and the papers from that time are chock full of stories about stabbings and shootings in the neighborhood. According to a 1914 report on the “Little Towns of Paducah,” the area of Hot Springs in Paducah had nearly as much “notoriety” as the Hot Springs in Arkansas, though obviously for totally different reasons. Curfews and other restrictions enacted by city, as well as Prohibition, ultimately dried up Hot Springs.
THE “BUCKET OF BLOOD”
It doesn’t appear as if this bar even had a real name. In fact, the bar doesn’t really appear in any of the city directories. But it was known widely throughout town as “The Bucket of Blood,” and the Paducah Evening Sun referenced it as such in many articles from 1904-1909. In fact, a Sun article from July 31, 1909 even provides us with an origin story: “The place was so named by former Patrolman Roger on account of the daily number of cutting affrays which took place there.” Located at Tenth and Caldwell, “The Bucket of Blood” was described as “a menace to the neighborhood and trouble to the police.” To the relief of much of Paducah, the “B. O. B.” was destroyed by a fire in early January 1910. By March of 1910, construction had begun on a new structure at the spot, a two-story brick grocery.
So, there you have it…a few of Paducah’s formerly scary places. There’s sometimes a temptation to look at the past as the “good old days,” but as you can see, sometimes it wasn’t always so good. Makes you kind of glad we live in the time we do, doesn’t it?
For more about Paducah’s old haunts, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.