London Bridge day: the story of Lake Havasu’s grandiose antique

During Christmastime, the London Bridge is adorned with lights and Christmas decorations, making it a joyful sight after dark, Lake Havasu City, Arizona, Dec. 26, 2020 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

FEATURE — Anyone wanting a dose of authentic European architecture and ambiance does not have to hop on a plane and “cross the pond” but drive just over four hours south of St. George to what one writer called “The largest antique ever sold.”

That large antique is the London Bridge, which is now located in Lake Havasu City in northwestern Arizona.

It’s not the original London Bridge, nor is it one that inspired the nursery rhyme or song. Even so, it is an impressive sight in the United States.

A series of bridges have spanned the River Thames in London. Probably the most famous one, of nursery rhyme fame, was the stone bridge built by architect and priest Peter of Colechurch between 1176 and 1209, which replaced various wooden bridges that had spanned the river since 50 A.D. 

“Due to uneven construction, the bridge required frequent repairs yet survived more than 600 years,” the Go Lake Havasu London Bridge history web page explains. “By the end of the 18th century, the old London Bridge needed to be replaced. It had fallen into severe disrepair and was blocking river traffic.” 

Its replacement, designed by Scottish engineer John Rennie, was completed in 1831 using many of the same stones from the old bridge, some of which bear the blood that dripped from traitors’ heads once displayed at the bridge’s gate. The bridge’s granite stonework was quarried at Dartmoor, Devon, England. It took seven years to build with 800 men working on the structure every day, Mary Martin wrote in an article for “Route” Magazine.

This historic photo shows the London Bridge in its original spot, spanning the River Thames in London, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Go Lake Havasu, St. George News

However, in the early 20th century, due to heavy automobile traffic, this version of the London Bridge was sinking at a rate of one inch every eight years.

“The 1,000-foot span had stood for over 130 years and survived strafing during World War II’s London Blitz, but it was unequipped for modern traffic and was slowly sinking into the River Thames,” Evan Andrews wrote in a 2016 History.com article.

The city deemed renovations impractical and resolved to build a wider, more car friendly span over the Thames and raze the bridge. But rather than turn it into a pile of rubble, a city councilor named Ivan Luckin hatched an idea to sell it to the United States and crossed the Atlantic to market it to potential buyers even though he knew it might be a tough sell.

“It was the less glamorous successor of several other crossings, most notably the medieval London Bridge, which stood for 600 years and was once dotted with buildings and waterwheels,” Andrews wrote. “Londoners considered the existing bridge dull by comparison, but after arriving in America, Luckin promoted it as a timeless landmark.” 

His sales pitch drew scorn from many, but for one eccentric businessman, Robert McCulloch, who had made millions heading up companies that sold oil, motors and chainsaws, the bridge seemed like a natural fit for the town he wanted to create from the 26 square miles of land he purchased near the shores of Arizona’s Lake Havasu. McCulloch bought the acreage in 1964 after flying over it in 1963, seeing it as a great test site for his outboard motor business, Martin wrote.

“McCulloch had founded the community of Lake Havasu City at the site and had designs on making it a tourist oasis, but he was still struggling to attract visitors,” Andrews explained. “When his business associate C.V. Wood told him about London Bridge, the two concluded that it was just the kind of eye-catching centerpiece Lake Havasu needed.” 

McCulloch had a penchant for “pie-in-the-sky” schemes, Andrews wrote, and planned to carve one of the lake’s peninsulas into an island so the bridge would have something to span. 

This historic photo shows the reconstruction of the London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, 1971 | Photo courtesy of Go Lake Havasu, St. George News

Next came the task of hashing out a sales price with City of London authorities. After finding out that it would cost $1.2 million to dismantle the bridge, McCulloch and Wood decided to offer double that amount, and to sweeten the deal McCulloch added $1,000 for each year of his age that he would be when the bridge reopened in Lake Havasu. McCulloch was 56 at the time.

“In April 1968, for a final price of $2,460,000, Robert McCulloch became the proud owner of the world’s largest antique,” Andrews concluded.

In addition to the 10,276 exterior granite blocks, the purchase included ornate lamp posts made from the melted-down cannons captured by the British from Napoleon’s army after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, which line the bridge today.

“Symbols of protection and guidance among sailors, dolphins decorate the lamp posts,” Martin wrote. “Some say that the lamp post-construction was the earliest recycling project in London.” 

Once they purchased the bridge, McCulloch and Wood put in motion the task of dismantling it for shipment to the United States.

“Workers began by labeling each of its granite bricks with markers that indicated their arch span, row number and position,” Andrews explained. “The bridge was then disassembled, packed away in crates and shipped to Long Beach, California, via the Panama Canal.”

Once in Long Beach, an army of trucks carried it across the desert to its new home in Arizona, after which the painstaking chore of putting the bridge back together commenced. 

Construction crews built a hollow core of steel-reinforced concrete (the granite interior stones were left back in London), which was then covered with 10,000 tons of the original 19th century granite. This reduced the core’s weight from 130,000 tons to 30,000 tons and, at the same time, strengthened it so it could accommodate modern traffic, the web page explains.

This historic photo shows the fanfare created at the dedication ceremony of the reopening of the London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, Oct. 10, 1971 | Photo courtesy of Go Lake Havasu, St. George News

“The painstaking assembly process took place over a small strip of land that connected a peninsula to the mainland, but as the project neared completion, workers cut a mile-long channel through the isthmus and allowed it to fill with water, creating an island,” Andrews noted.

In the end, shipping, assembly and dredging took over three years and cost approximately $7 million, seven times more than McCulloch spent on the land on which Lake Havasu City was developed.

McCulloch dedicated the newly-restructured bridge on Oct. 10, 1971, in flamboyant fashion with fireworks, hot air balloons, marching bands, skydivers and a dinner banquet of lobster and roast beef – the same meal served to King William IV when the bridge was first unveiled in 1831. Close to 100,000 people participated in the ceremony, including London’s Lord Mayor in black ceremonial robes and celebrities such as Robert Mitchum and Dan Rowan to add a little more spice.

“It’s a super gimmick,” the New York Times quoted one British newsman as saying of the bridge itself and the ceremony dedicating it. “It’s all quite mad – it could only happen in America. Only an American would think of investing that much in something as crazy as this.”

That newsman wasn’t the only detractor. The bridge purchase became widely known as “McCulloch’s Folly” and many predicted that McCulloch and Wood would regret their seemingly hair-brained scheme. 

“In the end, however, it was McCulloch and Wood who had the last laugh,” Andrews noted. “Their whimsical purchase proved to be the marketing ploy that Lake Havasu City needed. From a population of just a few hundred in the early 1960s, the town blossomed to over 10,000 residents by 1974. In 1975, its chamber of commerce reported that the bridge had drawn nearly two million visitors the previous year.”

The bridge spans 930 feet (280 meters) and connects pedestrians, motorists and cyclists on “mainland” Lake Havasu City to an island on the Colorado River.

McCulloch capitalized on the English theme and built the English Village, an open-air mall, on the north side of the bridge.

Unfortunately, McCulloch didn’t live to see Lake Havasu City blossom into the thriving municipality it is today. He died at age 65 on February 25, 1977, one year before Lake Havasu City was officially incorporated. 

This photo shows the London Bridge aglow from the setting sun, Lake Havasu City, Arizona. Date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Go Lake Havasu, St. George News

“The city stands today as McCulloch’s legacy and a vivid example of his imagination, passion and tenacity,” Martin concluded. “The most visible effect McCulloch had on Lake Havasu City was the London Bridge, the world’s largest and most expensive antique.”

According to Martin, the bridge is the second-most popular tourist draw in Arizona (the Grand Canyon is the first). In 2018, 3.8 million people crossed the bridge making it the most-visited man-made attraction in Arizona.

Lake Havasu City celebrated the 50th anniversary of the purchase of the London Bridge with a ceremony on October 20, 2018. It included a proclamation by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey and a visit from the Lord Mayor of the City of London and Alderman Charles Bowman. The celebration closed with a traditional sheep crossing over the London Bridge, with sheep from the La Paz County/Colorado River Indian Tribe 4H Youth Program, the Go Lake Havasu history page reports.

Outside its charming exterior, visitors can see bullet holes from World War II’s London Blitz and on the island side, near the abutment, some graffiti etched by American soldiers by the names of Fitzwater and Smith participating in field maneuvers in Britain in August 1942. 

When Merrill Fitzwater, a former Montana State Game Warden, learned that the bridge had been relocated to Lake Havasu City, he and his wife visited several times on their way to visit their daughter in Tucson. He left the mark on another continent over 40 years before but was able to travel a much shorter distance to see it again.

The bridge, being hollow, is also home to some rent-free tenants: a colony of bats and hundreds of birds, including swallows, who nest in the nooks and crannies under the bridge.

In 2017, the Federal Highway Administration deemed the bridge “functionally obsolete,” which doesn’t mean it is not structurally sound, but that it wouldn’t be acceptable as a design standard if it were built today.

Visitors see plethora of locks on the bridge placed by visitors, following the lead of similar locations in Europe, Lake Havasu City, Arizona, Dec. 26, 2020 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Along the same vein, looking at the bridge now, one might ask: “Could something like the relocation and reconstruction of London Bridge happen today?”

“From a logistical, engineering and construction standpoint, it’s entirely possible that it could happen today and in less time than it did back then,” said Go Lake Havasu Director of Strategic Services Jason Castelucci. “But the marketplace for deconstructed historical monuments ‒ if it even exists today ‒ isn’t where most investors go looking for a good investment. So yes, it could happen today but it would take visionaries like McCullough and Wood to make it happen.”

Visiting the London Bridge and Lake Havasu City

Lake Havasu City and London Bridge are an approximate 4 hour, 15 minute drive south of St. George on Interstate 15, U.S. 95, Interstate 40 and then Arizona 95. 

Lake Havasu City is a watersports haven in the warmer months and many outfitters offer a variety of equipment rentals and tours. The centerpiece of Lake Havasu City, however, is the London Bridge.

For more information about the London Bridge and Lake Havasu City, check out the Go Lake Havasu website.

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About the series “Days”

“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.

“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.

For previews on Days Series stories, insights on local history and information on upcoming historical presentations, please “like” Wadsworth’s author Facebook page.

Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.

Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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