When the United States entered the Great War on April 6, 1917, the countries of Europe had already been fighting for four long years. By the summer of 1918, the US had drafted 2.8 million men and was sending 10,000 soldiers to France every day. The human toll of the war would be tremendous and would not be limited to those killed, but would also include the multitude of wounded and traumatized, as well as those who would suffer long-term health issues, like the ones that would plague my uncle George Harris for the rest of his life.
THE EARLY YEARS
George Lindel Harris’ father, Joseph Albert Harris was born in Ontario, Canada on August 6, 1861. After immigrating to the United States, he made his way to San Francisco, California. It was in the bay city that he met and married Isabelle Tompkins, known as Belle, who had been born there on March 27, 1866. While in San Francisco, the couple added two daughters, Ethel Maude in 1887 and Florence in 1888, as well as a son, Howard Hebron in 1890, to the family. They soon relocated to Eureka, California where Belle had been raised. Joseph found a job as a carpenter building bridges doing the work that he would continue for the rest of his life. There, son George Lindell was born in 1895.
Joseph Harris was naturalized on June 8, 1896 in Eureka and three days later the blue-eyed, blonde-haired, 6-foot tall new citizen registered to vote. Daughter Grace Helen arrived two years later, in 1898. Joseph continued to follow the available work and by 1904 they were once again living in San Francisco where son Clyde Robert was born. Along the way, Belle also gave birth to two additional children who did not survive. It was in San Francisco that young George Harris would complete his eighth and final year of formal schooling.
For a downloadable copy of Joseph Harris’ descendant chart click here.
WORLD EVENTS INTERVENE
By 1917, 21-year old George Harris had set out on his own and was building bridges in Montana when the national draft was implemented. On June 5, 1917, he registered in Gallatin, Montana. On December 4, 1917 he was granted a “permit to enlist” and he and older brother Howard signed up together. The brothers were assigned to the 25th Engineers Company E, North Atlantic Construction Division and on February 27, 1918 Privates George and Howard Harris set sail from Hoboken, New Jersey for Brest, France.
When they arrived in France, they would have been greeted by the friendly faces of the Red Cross Volunteers at the Rest Room, where they would have been able to enjoy doughnuts, coffee, and the companionship of friendly young women. In some cases, there would have even been dancing!
The American Expeditionary Forces were comprised of over two million men. Significant new infrastructure would need to be built in Europe to successfully transport, shelter, and keep them supplied. The Army Corp of Engineers was thrown into the job with little experience in supporting an army that was thousands of miles from home, but they proved to be very much up to the job.
In addition to stringing barbed wire, digging trenches, constructing bridges, roads, and even railroads at or near the front, from time to time they would also be called upon to enter into combat. It is likely during one such foray into battle that George Harris was exposed to the horrible new weapon of war, dichloro-diethyl sulfide, commonly known as Mustard Gas.
As with any conflict, those who are called to serve together tended to form close bonds with their comrades in arms. And when there was an opportunity to mix some levity in with the devastation of war, they took it. As an example, George managed to take time out from “KP” duty to pose for a humorous photo cutting up with his fellow cooks.
The “war to end all wars” officially ended on November 11, 1918. But the work of the 25th Engineers was not yet completed. They remained in France for another six months, during which time they rebuilt bridges and roads, salvaged equipment, and cleared and detonated land mines.
On May 14, 1919, Colonel George Harris and Sergeant Howard Harris again crossed the Atlantic Ocean together, headed for home. This time they traveled on the SS Kaiserin Auguste Victoria, named after the German Empress, which was later rechristened the Empress of Scotland. This ship was originally built in 1906 for the Hamburg America Line. The sumptuous luxury liner was recognized as being the largest passenger liner until the Cunard Line’s Lusitania took that title in 1907. The Kaiserin made her last voyage as a German ship in June of 1914 when she traveled the loop from Hamburg to Southampton to Cherbourg to New York before returning to Hamburg. She then remained docked in Hamburg until Britain seized and renamed her in March 1919. The former luxury liner was soon pressed into service making five crossings returning troops to the United States before being transferred to Cunard Line ownership in early 1920.
George Harris mustered out of the army with an honorable discharge on June 9, 1919 just before his 24th birthday. In 1920 he was living with his parents in San Francisco making his living building homes.
A FATEFUL CAREER MOVE
In April of 1920 the town of Healdsburg, located about 70 miles north of San Francisco, was announcing plans to replace the old, damaged bridge across the Russian River with a new modern concrete bridge. When George Harris joined his father Joseph and his brother Howard on the construction crew, he did not realize how profoundly it would change his life.
While working on the bridge, George Harris made friends with a local youth who had just graduated from Healdsburg High School, Ernest Taeuffer. (Read about Ernest’s life here.) George enjoyed visiting the Taeuffer ranch where he would partake in Mae Congleton Taeuffer’s home cooked meals. And there was another bonus: Ernest had a lovely younger sister, Dorothy Agnes, with whom George began spending a great deal of time.
The bridge over the Russian River was completed in December 1921 at a cost of just under $109,000. It was opened to traffic on Thursday, December 22nd. When George returned home to San Francisco that week he took new friend Ernest Taeuffer with him for a few days visit.
The following year George Harris spent numerous weekends visiting the Taeuffer ranch on Magnolia Drive and taking fishing trips with the Taeuffers (John, Mae, Ernest, Dorothy, and Norman) and the Wilsons (Albert and Agnes) to Tomales Bay. Finally, in July 1922 the somewhat poorly kept secret of his engagement to Dorothy Taeuffer was officially announced. The bridal shower held in August was a co-ed affair attended by 78 guests. In addition to local friends and family, well-wishers traveled from the San Francisco Bay area and from as far away as New York and Honolulu.
On October 18, 1922, 27-year old George Harris married 21-year old Dorothy Taeuffer at her parents’ home on Magnolia Drive. The wedding was an intimate family affair. The couple were united beneath a bower of evergreens and autumn flowers. Dorothy’s aunt Helen Wilson Frey played the wedding march while Mae Garrett and Ernest Taeuffer stood up for the couple. After a short honeymoon, the new Mr. and Mrs. Harris moved into an apartment on Octavia street in San Francisco to begin their new life together.
To find out what happened next, be sure to read Part 2.
- 1900 US Census
- 1910 US Census
- 1920 US Census
- 1930 US Census
- 1940 US Census
- California Voter Registers, 1866-1889
- US World War I Registration Cards
- “Combat and Construction, US Army Engineers in World War I” by Charles Hendricks
- US Army Corp of Engineers Website
- US Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists 1910-1939
- Library of Congress
- Application for Veteran Headstone
- Healdsburg Tribune; 4 August 1922, 11 August 1922, 29 August 1922, 18 October 1922, 1 October 1923
- Healdsburg Enterprise; 3 August 1922, 10 August 1922
- Healdsburg Tribune, Enterprise and Scimitar; 19 October 1922
- Press Democrat; 7 December 1921, 18 December 1921, 14 June 1922, 1 August 1922, 8 August 1922, 19 October 1922
- Sotoyome Scimitar; 16 June 1922, 4 August 1922, 20 October 1922