Harley Bascom Ferguson was born on 14 August 1875 in Waynesville, North Carolina. His father was William Burder Ferguson, an attorney, born in Waynesville in 1838; and his mother was Laura Adelaide Reeves Ferguson, born at Cross Creek, North Carolina, in 1845. He was the fourth of seven children, all of whom attained prominence in their several fields of endeavor. His next older brother, Homer L., graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1892, and for many years was President of the Newport News Shipbuilding Company. His next younger brother, William Burder II, also graduated from the United States Naval Academy, in 1900, and in later years, also engaged in shipbuilding.
Harley attended the Waynesville Schools, was appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1893, from the old Tenth Congressional District of North Carolina, by Representative James Moody, graduated number seven in his class of sixty-seven, 11 June 1897, and was appointed a Second Lieutenant, Corps of Engineers, United States Army. To many of his intimates, he was known as “Fergie,” and since he knew and acquiesced in the use of the nickname by even his younger associates, we shall, in respect for his warm human friendliness, refer to him as “Fergie” in the remainder of this memorial.
During the first three years after commissioning, Fergie’s assignments included work on the harbor defenses at Charleston, South Carolina, participation in the Santiago Campaign in Cuba, and engineering and military duties in the Philippine Islands. In June 1900, he became Chief Engineer of the China Relief Expedition, and was recommended for Brevet Captain for gallant conduct in action at Yangtsun and Peiping.
Upon return to the United States, from 1902 to 1907, he was successively on duty in the Adjutant General’s Office, Washington, D.C., Instructor in Engineering at West Point, graduated from The Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Engineer Instructor at the Infantry and Cavalry School. For the next three years, Fergie was engaged in river and harbor work in the Montgomery, Alabama, District of the Corps of Engineers.
In September 1910, he was appointed a Member of a Board of Engineers charged with raising the Battleship Maine which had been sunk in Havana Harbor during the Spanish-American War. As the Executive of the Board, he was in charge of the work, and he is credited with devising and developing the cellular cofferdam, that is a cofferdam made up of connected independently stable circular, earth and rock-filled “cells,” which has since become standard and commonplace for deep-water unwatering.
After the raising of the Maine, Fergie, then a Major, graduated from the Army War College, Washington, D.C., in 1913, and served until 1917 on Corps of Engineers Civil Works assignments (formerly known as River and Harbor and Fortification Construction), at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the then Northwest Division of the Corps, and at New London, Connecticut.
In France, during World War I, as a Colonel, he commanded the 105th Engineers, 30th Division, and subsequently was the Engineer, II Corps, and the Engineer, Second Army. For those services, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. On 3 October 1918, he was promoted to Brigadier General, and assigned to command the Port of Embarkation at Newport News, Virginia. After the War, in the permanent grade of Colonel, he was United States District Engineer in Pittsburgh, and again attended the Army War College, graduating from the Post War Course in 1921.
In recognition of his special abilities, initiative, ingenuity, and accomplishment, he was appointed Director of Procurement in Charge of Industrial Mobilization Planning in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of War. Having experienced the difficulties of supply in France, he was instrumental in establishing the Army Industrial College to train personnel for Logistics, and he became Commandant of the College from 1925 to 1928, in addition to continuing as Director of Procurement.
After his seven years’ contribution to Industrial Mobilization Planning, Fergie was returned to Corps of Engineers River and Harbor duty. Successively, he was Division Engineer of the former Gulf Division at New Orleans, Louisiana; the then Central Division at Cincinnati, Ohio; and the South Atlantic Division at Norfolk, Virginia. During the latter assignment, Fergie again applied his facile mind and ingenuity to the problems of maintaining a navigation channel in the tidal section of the Savannah River, and developed a new modem technique. The conventional method of removing the shoaling deposit which forms when the silt-laden river water mixes with the tidal sea water, especially during the ebb tide period, was using sea-going hopper dredges—filling the hoppers, and hauling the deposit out to sea dumping areas. Fergie reasoned—“Why not use the higher currents of the ebb tide to carry the silt away, using the hopper dredge to merely drag the channel and discharge overboard, thus resuspending the silt, during the ebb period?” The result was more effective dredging of the channcl, and more dredge time was available for bar and other dredging.
In 1932, Fergie was appointed Division Engineer, Lower Mississippi Valley Division, and President of the Mississippi River Commission, headquartered at Vicksburg, Mississippi. At the same time he was promoted to Brigadier General. Work on the traditional features—levees, bank revetments, channel maintenance—of the Flood Control Act of 15 May 1928, to protect the Valley from a recurrence of the 1927 flood disaster, was in full swing. As usual, Fergie entered upon his new responsibilities with his customary zest and imaginative open mind. His philosophy was—explore both old and new theories and methods; don’t discard an innovation because it or something similar had been tried unsuccessfully once before; find out why it failed and see if it can now be made to produce the desired results. As was his habit, he reasoned aloud to his staff—"If you have a bathtub full of water and want to empty it—pull the plug.” He applied the theory to practice. He initiated “cut-offs” through the narrow necks of the tortuous river bends, thus shortening the river, increasing its slope and its discharge. By “opening-up” the channels of the Atchafalaya River Basin, west of the lower Mississippi, which was designated as a floodway for the escape of excess flood waters under the Flood Control Act, and by providing a new additional outlet into the Gulf, he increased the capacity and effectiveness of the Floodway.
When he retired from active duty and his Mississippi River triumphs, a Major General, 31 August 1939, the entire Valley acclaimed his accomplishments in flood protection. The artificial lake at Greenville, Mississippi, created by the Leland Neck Cut-off, was named Lake Ferguson in his honor. When he died, the leaders of the Lower Valley paid him tribute, and the newspapers editorialized him.
In retirement, he applied his talents to consulting on a number of engineering projects.
On 3 January 1907, Fergie married Mary Virginia McCormack, from North Dakota, and to them were born three children—Adele (Mrs. Charles E. Boudousquie), Lafayette, Louisiana; Virginia (Mrs. Otis Green Jr.) deceased; and Harley B. Jr., a Naval Architect, Pascagoula, Mississippi. Mrs. Ferguson died in New Orleans on 9 February 1939. In addition to his daughter and son, six grandchildren and his sister Ida (Mrs. John C. Orr) of Bristol, Virginia, age 100, survive him.
After retirement, Fergie lived for a number of years in Washington, D.C., before he moved to Lafayette, Louisiana, to be near his daughter, Adele. While in Washington, he frequented the Army and Navy Club and one of his lifetime intimates, Major General Charles D. Herron, Class of '99, writes, "He was a truly great man, wise, witty, warmhearted, and a true friend.”
Harley Bascom Ferguson, by his professional engineering and military achievements, and his personal character and humanness, exemplified the finest traditions of his family, his State, West Point, the Army, and his Country. His brilliant attainments and leadership continue to inspire as he takes his place in The Long Gray Line.
— Douglas L. Weart, '15, and Charles G. Holle, '20