Harry Burgess was born in Starkville, Mississippi, on February 22, 1872, the son of James and Susan Foster Burgess. He was a student of the Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical School from 1888 to 1891, then graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1895. He was an instructor in engineering in the U.S. Military Academy from 1898 to 1900, then served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers advancing in rank to colonel on July 1, 1920. He was in charge of surveys and design of Muscle Shoals power development and Panama Canal maintenance engineer from 1924 to 1928. In 1912 he married Mary Lillington Mckoy.
Burgess was appointed Governor of the Panama Canal Zone in October 1928, and served in that position until 1932. During his term, Canal traffic increased in volume rapidly and steadily until it reached a peak in 1929. This emphasized the need, foreseen by Walker, of providing for a greater future traffic, and much of Governor Burgess efforts were directed toward this end.
Following Walkers lead, he saw that substantial preliminary work was done toward increasing Canal capacity, namely, that of constructing a Dam for impounding additional water storage for lockages and maintenance of an optimal water level in Gatun Lake.
Governor Burgess was a kindly man, and held a deep sympathy for the men under him. Affable, and had a deep understanding of human needs and problems. He took great interest in the lives of the people who carried out the work of Canal operations and maintenance, and undoubtedly identified more closely with the workers than they themselves realized.
For example, he worked hard for, and was largely instrumental in, obtaining the rights of the Canal Zone Retirement Act, which affects favorably every employee of the Big Ditch." Burgess also planned the construction of school buildings, bachelors and nurses quarters and established a public library and the Canal Zone Jr. College. Unlike Walker, he was inclined to be impatient with details, but saw to it that every problem put to him had been well studied and carefully analyzed then acted with quick decision and sound judgment. His term ended in 1932, and the news of his death on March 18, 1933, was received with deep regret by Canal workers.