Otto Rae Elwell: Deception Pass Bridge Designer

View of Deception Pass Bridge From Whidbey Island Towards Pass Island

The history of the Canoe and Deception Pass Bridges would not be complete without the story of one of its most important contributors, its designer, Chief Bridge Engineer Otto Rae Elwell of the Washington Highway Department, who is also credited with designing the Great Northern Overpass.7,12

In May of 1935, symptoms of the illness that will kill Otto Elwell six months later begin. “The onset…is usually insidious, with lack of energy, weight loss, and persistent cough. These symptoms do not subside, and the general health of the patient deteriorates.”8 In July, a diagnosis precipitates his sudden resignation from the Department of Highways, at the peak of his 14-year career. “On July 31, 1935, the Deception Pass and Canoe Pass bridges are [inaugurated].”35 Ten weeks later to the day, he dies.

“Passenger Record.” The Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island
State of Nebraska “Built by London & Glasgow Shipbuilding Company, Glasgow, Scotland, 1880. 3,986 gross tons; 385 (bp) feet long; 43 feet wide…Service speed 13.5 knots. 1,001 passengers (175 first class, 826 third class).”

Otto is born in Aberdeen, Scotland on August 15, 1890, the third of five children of Ohio native and granite dealer Lewis Morton Elwell and West Virginia native Martha Jane Kirkwood. His birthplace is known as the Granite City. “By the end of the 19th century, with the advances in technology that facilitated the transport and carving of the [local] rock, Aberdeen became the granite capital of the world.”25 Approaching his seventh birthday, he and his family travel first cabin from Glasgow to America aboard the steam ship State of Nebraska. They arrive at Ellis Island in 1897, with a Scottish servant named Mary Mathison, who continues to live with the family for years.22

World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918.
Draft Registration Card Signature

Three years later, the Elwell family resides in Quincy City, Massachusettes, birthplace of Otto’s 13-year-old brother Erwalda.14,28 The same year, Otto turns ten. They move 700 miles west to Zanesville, Ohio, likely because of his father’s granite business. Otto plays baseball at the local high school.36 He graduates in 1907.16 Three years later, he boards with a group of laborers and a fellow surveyor. All 15 men work for the railroad in Zillah, Washington.29 His older brother “Wallie” works nearby as a draftsman, while his parents remain in Ohio.30,31 The Zanesville Signal recalls a time when “Wallie and Otto Elwell and Ray Hannum…had a narrow escape from death in 1910 when the engineering party of which they were members, became lost in a blizzard while on duty in a mountain region in the state of Washington. After four days of wandering in the wilderness, the young men and their party finally found themselves in a place of safety.”6

“The Zanesville High Baseball Team 1908.” The Zanesville Signal, 1 Sept. 1940.

Otto attends the University of Alberta, Canada, from 1911 through 1912.16 His father sells the granite business, L.M. Elwell and Co., in January of 1914.24 Otto registers for the draft registration in 1917, describing himself as a blue-eyed, light-haired, tall and slender. He is employed as a civil engineer in Salmon, Idaho.18 Four months later, he marries Bess Williams, a 27-year-old teacher from Shawnee, Ohio.13 In World War I, from December of 1917, he serves with Company B, 23rd Engineer Battalion, which “were mainly engaged in building highways used by the army to transport men and equipment to the front and in repairing highways destroyed by shell fire and rehabilitating areas contaminated by chemical warfare. The engineers were often at or very close to the front,” including the Aisene-Marne and Saint Mihiel campaigns.1 He rises in rank from private first class to sergeant and returns to the U.S. on the Winifredian on June 9, 1919. Otto receives an honorable discharge later that month.15 He returns to Zanesville as a civil engineer for the State of Ohio.16 He and Bess live just down the street from his parents.34

“Transport SS Winifredian arrives at new army base in South Boston with many brave heroes aboard…June 9, 1919.” Otto Elwell was one of the “brave heroes.”

Within a couple of years, Otto returns to the west coast.32 The 1921 Olympia directory lists his place of business as the State Highway Department.2 During the next six years, he’s promoted multiple times, moving his way up from draftsman to chief bridge engineer.2 In spring of 1930, 39-year old Otto and Bess live in downtown Olympia along with Bess’s sister, Deborah. His parents and sister follow them, moving to Tacoma.33 During the next five years, Otto Elwell’s design work includes the Canoe Pass Bridge, Deception Pass Bridge, and the Great Northern Overpass.

On November 13, 1935, Otto dies. The cause of death: tuberculosis. Most of us believe it to be a disease of the past. It isn’t. Worldwide, “a total of 1.5 million people died from TB in 2018,” and it is estimated that today “up to 13 million people in the United States are living with latent TB infection.”5,26 The obituary in Zanesville states that “Mr. Elwell was ill for several months but for a time he seemed to improve.”21 The Spokesman Review‘s version reads, “Otto R Elwell, 45, state bridge engineer and draftsman for the last 14 years, died at his home here today after a four months’ illness.”19 The life expectancy of a person born in 1890, is 44 years.17 He exceeds that, but just barely. His six family members do much better, surviving an average of 80 years. Otto Rae Elwell, a veteran of World War I who works his way up in the Washington Highway Department to become a chief bridge engineer, is a bright, highly-motivated, responsible man brought down by the then sixth leading cause of death in America.11

In his last will and testament, legalized a dozen years before his death, he leaves his estate to his wife, Bess. Along with a $10,000 life insurance policy, he has accumulated an additional $10,000 in combined checking, savings and other assets, $20,000 in 1935 is about $380,000 in today’s dollars.9 In addition, he leaves prospective proceeds for a yet-to-be-filed bridge cable attachment system patent which he and Ralph Finke designed together to his wife.3 In 1934, both men worked at the Department of Highways, Ralph as a draftsman and Elwell as a bridge engineer. Finke, who in a few years will become State Bridge Engineer, files the patent in 1938. Two years later, it’s approved.27

“United States Patent US2198809.”

Nowadays, the Canoe and Deception Pass Bridges carry about 17,000 vehicles per day between Fidalgo, Pass and Whidbey Islands and each year, most of the two million plus persons who travel to the state’s most visited park, Deception Pass State Park, cross these two majestic bridges.12,23


  1. “American Expeditionary Forces Identity Card, Frederick C. Stilson, 23rd Engineer Battalion.” World Digital Library RSS, Library of Congress, 1 Jan. 1970,

  2. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011.

  3. Washington, Wills and Probate Records, 1851-1970 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2015.

  4. “Deception Pass Bridge HAER No. WA-103 File Page 11 Image.”,

  5. “Data & Statistics.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 Sept. 2019,

  6. “Do You Remember.” The Zanesville Signal, 11 Feb. 1938, p. 4.

  7. Dougherty , Phil. “Burlington Northern Overpass (Skagit County).” Burlington Northern Overpass (Skagit County), 4 Oct. 2018,

  8. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Tuberculosis.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 7 Feb. 2020,

  9. “Inflation Rate between 1935-2020: Inflation Calculator.” $20,000 In 1935 → 2020 | Inflation Calculator,

  10. Jones, Leslie. Transport SS Winifredian arrives at new army base in South Boston with many brave heroes aboard. 09 Jun 1919. Web. 13 Apr 2020.

  11. “Leading Causes of Death, 1900-1998 .” CDC,

  12. Long, Priscilla. “Deception Pass and Canoe Pass Bridges Are Dedicated on July 31, 1935.” Deception Pass and Canoe Pass Bridges Are Dedicated on July 31, 1935., 5 May 2004,

  13. Marriage RecordsOhio Marriages. October 27, 1917. Perry County, Ohio Courthouse.

  14. Massachusetts Vital Records, 1840–1911. New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, Massachusetts.

  15. The Official Roster of Ohio Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the World War, 1917-18. Columbus, OH, USA: The F.J. Heer Printing Co., 1926.

  16. Ohio, World War I 83rd Division Returning Soldier data cards, 1917-1920 / United States. Army. Infantry Division, 83rd

  17. O’Neill, Aaron. “United States: Life Expectancy 1860-2020.” Statista, 22 Jan. 2020,

  18. Original data: United States, Selective Service System. World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration. M1509, 4,582 rolls. Imaged from Family History Library microfilm.

  19. “Otto R. Elwell.” Archives | The Spokesman-Review, 14 Nov. 1935,

  20. “Otto Rae Elwell (1890-1935) – Find A Grave…” Find a Grave,

  21. “Otto Elwell Dies.” The Zanesville Signal, 18 Nov. 1935, p. 10.

  22. “Passenger Record.” The Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island, State Department of Health. State Death Records Index, 1940-1996. Microfilm. Washington State Archives, Olympia, Washington.

  23. Reid, Janis. “Bracing for Delays at Deception Pass: Whidbey News.” Times, Whidbey News-Times, 19 May 2015,

  24. “Retail Notes.” Granite, Marble and Bronze, A.M. Hunt, Co., 1914, p. 52. Google Books,

  25. “Scottish Fact of the Week: The Granite City.” The Scotsman, The Scotsman, 14 Aug. 2014,

  26. “Tuberculosis (TB).” World Health Organization, World Health Organization,

  27. “United States Patent US2198809.” Free Patents Online,

  28. Year: 1900; Census Place: Quincy Ward 5, Norfolk, Massachusetts; Page: 20; Enumeration District: 1068; FHL microfilm: 1240671.

  29. Year: 1910; Census Place: N Yakima Ward 3, Yakima, Washington; Roll: T624_1675; Page: 12A; Enumeration District: 0286; FHL microfilm: 1375688.

  30. Year: 1910; Census Place: Zanesville Ward 1, Muskingum, Ohio; Roll: T624_1221; Page: 1A1B; Enumeration District: 0089; FHL microfilm: 1375234.

  31. Year: 1910; Census Place: Zillah, Yakima, Washington; Roll: T624_1675; Page: 7A; Enumeration District: 0294; FHL microfilm: 1375688.

  32. Year: 1930; Census Place: Olympia, Thurston, Washington; Page: 12B; Enumeration District: 0028; FHL microfilm: 2342255.

  33. Year: 1930; Census Place: Tacoma, Pierce, Washington; Page: 6A; Enumeration District: 0186; FHL microfilm: 2342246.

  34. Year: 1920; Census Place: Zanesville Ward 5, Muskingum, Ohio; Roll: T625_1425; Page: 2B; Enumeration District: 146.

  35. “Washington State Archives.” Dedication Ceremony, July 31, 1935…. – Washington State Archives,

  36. “The Zanesville High Baseball Team 1908.” The Zanesville Signal, Section 1, p. 6. 1 Sept. 1940.


4 thoughts on “Otto Rae Elwell: Deception Pass Bridge Designer

    • Great to hear from you, long lost friend. I created an email, sent it to the email address attached to this message…and got rejected. I’ll see what I can do to connect. Thank you for the kind words.

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