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Bill Thayer

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[image ALT: A head‑and-shoulders photograph of a man in early middle age with a full brush mustache, sideburns and a fairly close-trimmed beard. He looks a bit sad or distracted. He wears plain civilian clothes — a jacket with small narrow lapels, a starched shirt with a low-rising collar. He is Harrison Gray Otis, a West Point graduate, United States Army officer, and civil engineer whose career is detailed on this webpage.]

Harrison Gray Otis

The preceding image, and the text that follows, are reproduced from (the report of the) Sixty-first Annual Reunion of the Association of the Graduates of the United States Military Academy, June 11, 1930.

 p119  Harrison Gray Otis
No. 2527 Class of 1874
Died September 19, 1928, at San Diego, California,
aged 76 years.

Harrison Gray Otis was born at Salem, New Jersey, October 16, 1852. He was the son of the Rev. William Brown Otis and Ann E. Tuft, of Salem and Shrewsbury, N. J. His early education was acquired at private schools, first at Geneva, New York; and later at Burlington, New Jersey, where he met "Buck" Grant, youngest son of General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.U. S. Grant. The two became close chums, the friendship lasting through life.

In 1870, General Grant, then President, appointed young Otis to West Point, and through an error in the records at the time of his appointment, his name was recorded as Harrison Gail Otis, and was so carried throughout his military career.

In reminiscing his life at the Academy, Col. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George L. Anderson, one of his classmates, tells the following:

"The class of 1874 reported at the U. S. Military Academy on June 17, 1870, and three weeks later, Otis, who had been delayed by orders from the White House, reached West Point headquarters just as the battalion of cadets was passing to enter the mess hall across the way. Having registered and still in civilian dress, he was sent over to join his future classmate.

"Dinner over, the battalion captain gave the usual " 'A' Company, rise." Innocently, Otis arose with the others and started out, but was immediately pounced upon by two cadets in charge who demanded to know why he had left his table without command. Realizing his mistake, he attempted to rejoin the 'plebes' whom he discovered were still seated, but too late, he was hemmed in on all sides by a mass of humanity slowly moving toward the open door. Try as he might, he could not break through. His hold on the iron stairway rail caused no delay. If he broke through an opening in one spot, he was met by phalanx 'B', while phalanx 'C' was approaching, and 'D' was in the offing. Up and down the steps four times he was pushed before he finally returned to his table, very much in need of his new uniform.

"This, his introduction to the corps lasted only a few minutes, but it was accepted by him with such good grace,  p120 that he became at once one of the most popular members of the new class of the corps. That popularity was never lost, and the incident ended any further annoyance during the summer camp.

"Otis was known to his classmates only as 'Fiery', owing to his ruddy complexion and forceful movements. His bearing would attract attention anywhere, being unusually tall and as erect as an Indian. He seldom entered into athletics of any kind. Work was his play. Whether it was repairing a chair, putting a clock together, or building a road, he entered into it with his whole heart, and stuck to it until it was finished; and it was the same with his studies. He always stood high in his class."

After graduation, Lieutenant Otis was appointed to the Fourth Cavalry and served for two years on frontier duty in Texas. A part of this time he was in charge of the Indian Cantonment at Sweetwater, Texas, and on special duty survey of water and route locations.

In 1876 he was sent to the Artillery School at Fort Monroe for practice, but returned to the frontier, this time Camp Custer, Neb., in August, 1876. He participated in the campaign against the Cheyenne and Sioux Indians, and the Powder River Expedition.

In 1877 Otis was transferred to the Fourth Artillery and was on frontier duty at Fort Stevens, Ore. September and October of 1877 he participated in the Nez Perces Expedition commanding Howitzer Section of battery in action at Canyon Creek. He was recommended for Brevet and Service Medal in the Battle of Clearwater.

From November, 1877 to June, 1878, he was in garrison at the Presidio of San Francisco, and from there sent on frontier duty at Camp McDermitt, Nev., where he participated in the campaign against the Snake Indians.

From October, 1878 to March, 1879 he was in garrison at Angel Island and from there transferred to the frontier at Fort Stevens, Ore., where he remained until July, 1879 when he returned to Angel Island.

His last station was the Presidio of San Francisco (October, 1879 to September, 1880), for in July, 1881 he resigned from the army by reason of disability for field service, caused by sunstroke received during the Nez Perce Indian Campaign.

His enforced severance from the military service was a regret to him, which was somewhat repaid by the comfort it gave his Quakeress mother in her last years, to whom his alliance with the army had been regretful.

After his resignation, Otis took up engineering, and 1882 found  p121 him in the capacity of mining engineer in the development of coal and iron fields in Alabama.

In 1884 he married Adele C. Varro, of Washington, Pa., a cousin of Mrs. U. S. Grant, whom he had met some years before through his chum "Buck" Grant. At the time of his marriage he accepted the position of Professor of Mathematics and of Military Science, at Trinity Hall Military Academy, Washington, Pa. where he remained until 1890, when the inactive life induced him to resign in favor of a civil engineering position on the construction of the Croton Aqueduct.

In 1896 he joined forces with the Engineering Department, U. S. A. and was sent in charge of construction of Forts Michie and Terry, Long Island Sound.

Otis was engineer on the breakwater at Buffalo, N. Y., from 1899 to 1901, and mining engineer in the development of the coal mines along the Allegheny River, Pennsylvania, 1901 and 1902.

In 1902 the Quartermaster Department, U. S. A., sent him to Fort Sheridan, Ill., in charge of construction, where he remained until 1908 when he left the Government Service and moved his family to San Diego, Calif.

Otis was structural engineer on several of the largest buildings in downtown San Diego, and in later years became well known as a Consulting Structural and Sanitary Engineer.

In 1914 his health forced him to retire and he bought a small fruit ranch near San Diego, where he spent much of his time, for even in his declining years, he was unhappy, if idle.

In September, 1928, after a short illness, he died in the U. S. Naval Hospital at San Diego, Calif. and was brought to Arlington National Cemetery where he was buried with full military honors.

He is survived by his widow, Mrs. Adele Varro Otis, and four children, Harrison G. Otis, Jr., of San Diego, Fannie Grant Otis, Washington, D. C., William Wrenshall Otis, Poway, Calif., and Mrs. Lee Rutledge Herring, wife of Lt. Herring, U. S. N.

Fannie Grant Otis.

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Page updated: 6 Dec 14