“If you seek his monument, look about you.”
These words, written by a Los Angeles newspaperman, summarize succinctly the life and words of General Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times from 1882 to 1917.
Born in Ohio on Feb. 10, 1837, Otis was the youngest of 16 children. He came from a Boston family of fine repute. His life was fraught with adventure and controversy. The complex of his professions ranged from goat herder and soldier to editor and publisher.
Otis’ first association with journalism came at the age of 14 when he worked as a printer’s devil. In 1856, he attended Wetherby Academy at Lowell, Ohio, and a few years later graduated from Granger’s Commercial College at Columbus.
Otis entered military service during the Civil War and participated in 15 battles and was wounded twice. He was cited for gallant and meritorious services, and in 1865, as a lieutenant colonel, he was honorably discharged.
He journeyed to California in 1876 to raise Angora goats; however, that same year, he became editor and publisher of the Santa Barbara Press.
In 1882, he came to Los Angeles and acquired an interest in The Times. It had been founded in December 1881. He soon became editor and owner of the newspaper. Otis declared in his first editorial that he was “beginning his journalistic duties with a profound faith in future developments and sure destiny of the city.”
From a town of 12,000, he predicted a metropolis. He crusaded vigorously for new industry, factories, a satisfactory harbor, increased population and other elements necessary for building a great city.
By 1886, he was predicting that Los Angeles would have a population of 1 million.
Otis returned to military duty in the Spanish-American War, and at the war’s end President McKinley appointed him “brevet major-general of volunteers for his meritorious conduct.”
Having returned to his publisher’s desk, Otis continued his fight for civic improvement and development. His longest and most frustrating struggle concerned The Times’ relation with labor unions.
After the typographical union strike had begun in 1890, the newspaper became an open shop. On Oct. 1, 1910, the Times Building was destroyed by dynamite. Twenty employees were killed in what Otis termed “the crime of the century,” Two brothers were convicted of destroying the plant.
Otis contended that The Times never had objected to “lawful or legitimate organizations formed and maintained by laborers in any branch of industry.” He did, however, object to what he called “gross and mischievous abuse in the management of the organizations by the leaders of them.”
Among the first to anticipate the water problem in the Southland, Otis urged implementation of a $23 million plan to bring water to Los Angeles from Owens Valley, 250 miles away, in the early 1900s. Voters approved the project in 1907.
Otis also foresaw a transportation quandary. Regarding a system of good roads in Los Angeles County, he said, “...the improvement is one which would be of the greatest value to every citizen of the county.”
The Times also promoted construction of a transcontinental highway and a deep-water harbor at San Pedro.
Ten months after World War I had begun, Otis published a four-part editorial that described a world peace plan called the Universal Peace Pact. Oscar Strauss, a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, said that the plan was “one of the most feasible and comprehensive proposals that has been made to end war for all time.”
A year before his death in 1917, Otis gave his home on Wilshire Boulevard to the city for use as an art institute. The purpose of the donation, he said, was to “help encourage the young in the uphill struggle for success and for the development of art in the Southland.”
Today, on the edge of Westlake Park in Los Angeles, stands a bronze figure of Otis in an Army uniform. On one side is a soldier — on the other a newsboy.