BELL, HARMON, Counselor at Law, Oakland, California, was born in that city March 23, 1855, the son of the Reverend Dr. Samuel B. Bell and Sophie B. (Walsworth) Bell. He married Miss Katherine Wilson at San Francisco on January 16, 1880, and they have two children living, Traylor W., who is associated with his father in law practice, and Joseph S. Bell.
Mr. Bellís paternal ancestors were New Yorkers, originally Scotch, and on the maternal side he is of Revolutionary stock, partly English and Holland Dutch. His father, a Presbyterian clergyman, was prominent in religious and political circles, noted for progressive ideas, his ability as an orator and his unswerving honesty. He was a pioneer in the Golden State and built the First Presbyterian Church in Oakland, afterwards serving as it pastor. He was one of the organizers of the Republican party in the State of California and in 1857 was elected to the State Senate from Santa Clara and Alameda Counties, this being the first time that the Republican party had been represented in either branch of the California Legislature and its representation then consisting only of Dr. Bell and the San Francisco delegate. Dr. Bell served through that session and that of 1858, the California Legislature then meeting annually, and was in the State Assembly during the Thirteenth Session, this being at the most stirring period of the Civil War. Dr. Bell was a great friend of the noted Californian, Baker, and was himself a strong and logical speaker. He took part in the promotion of various important acts of legislation and had the distinction of introducing into the Legislature the first bill for the establishment of the University of California, now one of the great educational institutions of America. He had previously helped to found the California College and had seen the advantage of merging it into what has since come to be one of the strongest universities on the continent and the pride of the State of California.
Harmon Bellís wife was the daughter of two pioneer Californians, her father having been A.C.J. Wilson of Santa Barbara, who was one of the first men to get gold during the rush of 1849.
Mr. Bellís father being called to different religious charges while the son was in his youth, the latterís education necessarily was divided, frequently interrupted and obtained in various institutions. But despite the many interruptions it was exceptionally thorough and he also had the added advantage of his fatherís assistance in his studies, the latter then being in the prime of his activities. The sonís first early training was provided by the Lyons Academy, Lyons, New York, he next attending Hillsdale College in Michigan, where he remained only a short time. His final schoolroom work was done in Washington College, a private institution of Alameda, California, and he then determined upon law as a profession and took up its study.
Mr. Bell began his legal training in the office of Dirlam & Lehman, of Mansfield, Ohio, whither his father had taken him in 1875. Moving thence to Kansas City, Missouri, the following year, he completed his preparation for the profession in the office of Judge Turner A. Gill, and on May 1, 1878, was admitted to practice in the Supreme Court of Missouri. Having inherited an inclination for politics from his father, Mr. Bell allied himself with the Republican party in Kansas City, and in 1881 was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives. He served during that year and the next and was one of the few Republican representatives in the Legislature at that time.
For twenty years Mr. Bell devoted himself to his profession in Kansas City and during that time advanced to a position among the leaders of the Bar of the city.
His practice was of a genera nature, chiefly civil, with only an occasional venture into the devious lanes of criminal law, and though it was marked by a number of important cases, it was not enlivened by any noteworthy relief from the monotony of ordinary legal routine. His first case at the bar, however, was illumined by an amusing incident that furnished significant evidence of young Bellís powers of observation. The case had not progressed far before he saw that the presiding Judge had a decided admiration for the feminine propensity of getting in the last word. But the opposing counsel subsequently made the same discovery. Thenceforth the proceedings developed into a sort of mental catch-as-catch-can contest for the ultimate syllable. Whether skill or endurance was responsible for the victory has not appeared; but at all events young Bell won the case.
His success in this, his first appearance in court in the capacity of counsel, served to encourage Mr. Bell and probably had an effect upon his whole future career, because he recalled vividly the circumstances of that first contest and his knowledge of human nature has since been one of his chief assets.
In 1898, after nearly a quarter of a century in other sections of the country, Mr. Bell returned to his native California and opened offices for the practice of his profession in San Francisco, where he remained for about six years.
From the outset he made a specialty of corporation practice and in a period of approximately fifteen years has attained position among the leading counselors of the Pacific Coast. His success in the handling of corporation matters had much to do with his summons to Oakland, in 1904, to become the attorney for the Oakland Traction Company, and his labors since that time have been little short of monumental.
Previous to his advent all of the Oakland corporationís properties had been in separate lines, but with his advice the owners were able to bring about a consolidation which resulted in Oakland having one of the most efficient electric railway systems in the United States, this being one of the chief factors in the marvelous growth within a few years of Oakland and its environs. Mr. Bell drew up all the papers for the establishment of the Key Route Company, and allied corporations operating in opposition to the Southern Pacific Railroad Companyís ferry lines, and he had charge of all the legal business of the combined companies, which included the Oakland Traction Company, the Key Route Co. and the Realty Syndicate of Oakland.
In March, 1911, the electric lines of Oakland, together with the connecting lines of ferries, were consolidated under the name of the San Francisco-Oakland Terminal Railways, and Mr. Bell, as Chief Counsel for the Oakland interests, had a large part in the completion of the merger which brought about one of the largest traction corporations of the United States.
Mr. Bell has continued as Chief Counsel for the San Francisco-Oakland Terminal Railways and in this capacity has been one of the potent influences for harmonious conduct of the big companyís business. Since the beginning of his connection with the traction interests of Oakland Mr. Bellís practice has been confined almost entirely to their affairs and he has also expanded his knowledge of business affairs to such an extent that he is almost an essential part of the concern. The necessity of keeping in touch with the decisions in corporation cases, with the development of business, with the field for bond issues that will appeal to the investing public, requires a legal and commercial acumen that proves Mr. Bell to be a close student of all pertaining to those features of his interests.
Necessarily, his work for the traction interests of Oakland and San Francisco has involved manifold duties and a versatility of unusually high degree. The bond issues and damage suits along have constituted a task to which a capacity of a lesser magnitude than that of Mr. Bell would have succumbed, but for many years he had personal charge of all these cases and only recently relinquished the handling of the damage suits to his assistants.
A large part of Mr. Bellís success has been due to his coolness and keen knowledge of human nature. It has been the policy of fairness, originated in the mind of Mr. Bell, which has aided in the success of the traction enterprises of the Bay cities and has helped along in the development of those municipalities, for in the wake of modern electric transportation facilities Oakland, San Francisco and other communities have greatly expanded and real estate values advanced as population increased.
In addition to his labors for the traction interests mentioned, Mr. Bell is the head of the law firm of Bell, Bell & Smith of Oakland. This firm, formed in September, 1911, is made up of himself, his son, Traylor W. Bell, and Stanley J. Smith, son of Judge Stanley A. Smith, of Downieville, California. The two younger men are among the most promising of California attorneys. Mr. Bellís son inherited an inclination for the law and after a splendid educational training was admitted to the bar of California in May, 1905. He immediately engaged in practice with his father under the firm name of Bell & Bell, and after more than six years together they took in Mr. Smith, with the result that the firm is one of the leading law associations of California. The younger members are associated with Mr. Bell in his work for various traction corporations, but the firm also conducts a general legal business, a large part of which is handled by the junior members.
Despite the manifold demands of his practice, Harmon Bell avoids the narrowness of outlook that comes from long confinement in one branch of the lawĖeven so wide a field as corporation law. He has at all times been a supporter of the Republican party, although not over active in political affairs, and has taken a strong interest in public works of Oakland and San Francisco. In the trying days following the disaster of 1906, when San Francisco was leveled by earthquake and fire, Mr. Bell threw all his energy into the work of relief and did a great deal towards alleviating the sufferings of the stricken people. The Oakland Traction Company put its ferries into service within a few hours after the shock was felt by San Francisco and by providing beds and medical aid for the refugees helped considerably in restoring the confidence of the people.
In the great tangle of legal problems and litigations caused by the disaster attendant upon the work of restoring normal conditions Mr. Bell was a powerful factor and not only steered his clientele safety through the maze, but also lent his advice in the straightening out of affairs for others.
Always a supporter of projects for the benefit of the Bay section, Mr. Bell was an advocate, from the beginning, of the plan for holding a World Fair at San Francisco in 1915 to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal and has extended his assistance in many directions.
Mr. Bell has collected a large library of general literature and finds relaxation in its stimulating atmosphere. Standard and the best modern fiction are his chief diversion, his zest for which is enlivened by the congenial tastes of his wife, with whom he is especially fond of reading.
While not a clubman, in the strict meaning of the term, Mr. Bell manages to devote a moment now and then to the several associations of which he is a member. Among the most prominent of these are the Athenian Club and the Claremont Gold and Country Club, both of Oakland, and the Transportation and Commonwealth Clubs of San Francisco.
He is a Mason, member of the Mystic Shrine, Knights Templar, B.P.O. Elks, and the Native Sons of the Golden West.
Transcribed 11-21-09 Marilyn R. Pankey.
Source: Press Reference Library, Western Edition Notables of the West, Vol. I, Pages 359-360, International News Service, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta.† 1913.
© 2009 Marilyn R. Pankey.