All that remains of a bridge that
used to be here. I thought I'd find some history on it, and
stumbled across the name of a highwayman named Tom Bell. Bell
Valley lies on the line between Parks Bar and Foster Bar
Township, where the Rice's Crossing road passes. It was named
after Tom Bell, who used the valley as a retreat for stock and
other booty in the mid 1850's. He was nearly six feet tall, well
proportioned, strong, intelligent, active...and possessed a
sanguine temperament. He had thick sandy colored hair, a
matching goatee and light blue-gray eyes. His nose was
originally well formed and large, but the bridge had been
crushed, so that it was almost level with his face. The defect
made his appearance more frightening when viewed along with his lawless
Bell was a native of Tennessee,
where he graduated from college and medical school with high
honors. His real name was Thomas Hodges. He enlisted in the
Mexican war and served under B.F. Cheatham. In 1849 he joined
the gold rush to California, discovered a rich mine in Mariposa County,
played high roller until the mine gave out and he went broke.
He stole eleven mules from a Mexican camp nearby, drove them to
Nevada (City?) and sold them at a high price. He discovered that
stealing was easier than using a pick and shovel. This motivated
him to organize a bunch of bandits. Bell eventually was caught
and imprisoned on Angel Island, where he pretended to be sick.
He was then sent to San Francisco's Broadway jail for treatment.
After he escaped the authorities learned that Tom Bell and
Thomas Hodges were the same person.
In October 1856, Sheriff Hanson of
Placer County learned that the Bell gang was in his area, and
with a party of armed men he set out to find them. One
historical rendition says that after lots of shooting near a
wayside saloon, a bandit named White was captured, but Bell and
Texas escaped. He was promised leniency if he'd lead them to
Bell. They went to Knight's Ferry and then on to the banks of
the Stanislaus River. By accident one of the men noticed Bell
hiding in the thick willows. They took his gun, bowie knife and
tied him on his horse and rode on to Firebaugh's Ferry. It was
about 11a.m. Bell was informed that he would be hung at 4p.m.
that afternoon. The twenty-eight year old outlaw asked
permission to write a letter to his mother and another woman
where they'd searched for him earlier. Then he asked for some
liquor to numb his senses...and became very
drunk...freely talking about his exploits and adventures. Near
the ferry there grew an oak, the only tree in that
vicinity, known as "the lone oak tree." At the appointed hour,
Bell was taken to the tree, were he fervently prayed for
forgiveness. A rope was placed around his neck, and within
moments he was dead.
The Encyclopedia account says that
Tom was tracked down by a vigilante group near the Merced River
on October 4, 1856. "By the time the Stockton Sheriff arrived,
he found Bell hanged from a tree outside Nevada City,
California." I can't help but think the tree was by the South
Yuba River near Rice's Crossing.