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London Bridge: An Arizona Icon Since 1971

When it was originally built across the River Thames in the 1830s, few would’ve guessed that more than a century later London Bridge would reside 5,000 miles away in sunny Arizona.

The impressive granite and brick structure consisted of more than 10,000 pieces of all shapes and sizes, but by the early 1960s it was well on its way to obsolescence.

It’d survived two World Wars and more than 130 years of daily use, but the stalwart bridge just wasn’t up to the challenges of the 20th century. 

In fact, it was sinking into the Thames at an alarming rate, and the city needed a replacement. 

Though its future was bleak, the old bridge’s date with the rubble heap wasn’t a foregone conclusion, because a shrewd London city councilman had a better idea. 

They’d sell it—to the Yanks. 

So in 1968 he set out across the Atlantic in search of prospective buyers, and as luck would have it, American entrepreneur and oil company executive Robert P. McCulloch was in the market for just such an item.

A few years earlier the brazen speculator had secured more than 3,000 acres of land on the east side of Lake Havasu in west-central Arizona, and he’d negotiated a heck of a deal. 

The land was free, with one stipulation—the state wanted it to be developed.  

Not an easy undertaking considering its location in one of the harshest and most remote corners of the American Southwest.  

McCulloch envisioned a vibrant retirement community teaming with wealthy geriatric snowbirds from all over the country, and he wasn’t about to let his dream die without a fight.  

The problem was attracting potential buyers. 

Lake Havasu is hundreds of miles from the region’s major airports and metropolitan centers, and the roads were notoriously poor in those days. 

What he needed was something to draw them in. 

Something like a 1000-foot stone bridge from halfway around the world. 

But when his real estate agent suggested he buy it, McCulloch apparently said it was the craziest idea he’d ever heard.

He eventually came around however, because shortly thereafter the pair were in London negotiating with hardnosed city officials who were determined to get top dollar for their historic bridge.

According to them, disassembly alone would cost the taxpayers a bundle.

After considering the matter carefully McCulloch offered nearly $2.5 million—almost 20 million in today’s dollars, and double the figure quoted for dismantling the bridge. 

The deal was finalized in April of 1968, and the American became the proud new owner of an obsolete stone structure for which he paid a fortune by the standards of the day. 

Rumors persisted that the Brits had duped the brash Americans into believing they’d actually purchased London’s more well-known Tower Bridge.

They laughed off the baseless claim, and it wasn’t long before the colossal deconstruction got underway.  

Each of the bridge’s granite segments was assigned a number before disassembly, after which many were taken to a local quarry and shortened by as much as 8 inches to make them easier to handle and ship.

London Bridge Numbered Stone
London Bridge Numbered Stone by Skarg is licensed under CC-BY

In another stroke of luck, inexpensive transport was secured on a newly built vessel—one that was originally slated to make the trip from England to its new owners in America empty. 

Seizing the opportunity, McCulloch’s team offered to pay the ship’s operating costs in lieu of freight charges. 

The owners agreed, and the bridge got moved for pennies on the dollar. 

The heavily laden ship traveled down the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, and up the west coasts of Mexico and California before docking at the Port of Long Beach.

From there a multitude of trucks hauled the individual pieces to the obscure Arizona town on the Colorado River.

In September of 1968, the bridge’s first foundation stone was ceremonially laid, but despite its new lease on life it still wasn’t up to bearing modern loads. 

Structural engineers directed workers to build a number of gargantuan hollow concrete forms that would replace some of the heavier components. 

These add-ons significantly increased the bridge’s strength, and reduced its weight by more than a quarter. 

The time consuming process was carried out on a narrow peninsula along the shore of Lake Havasu, which would later become an island when a canal was dredged below the bridge.

When the reconstruction was nearly complete, the bridge’s façade was covered with much of the original granite masonry from the 1830s. 

All told, transportation, site preparation and assembly took more than three years and cost nearly $7 million—$52 million when adjusted for inflation.   

Then on a sunny October day in 1971, the reassembled English bridge was officially unveiled in a garish ceremony featuring synchronized skydivers, an epic fireworks display, hot air balloons, a marching band, and A-list celebrities like Robert Mitchum. 

The high-profile bridge purchase was often referred to as “McCulloch’s Folly,’ but the giant gamble paid off. 

Prospective buyers, retirees, and those who’d had it with the harsh winters in the Midwest and Northeast flocked to Lake Havasu City in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and many purchased land and homes.

What started out as an iffy and expensive marketing scheme had helped transform a once desolate stretch of rock and scrub into a bustling city of 10,000 less than a decade later.

Now Lake Havasu City has a population five times larger than it did back then, and it attracts more than a million visitors annually. 

Many don’t spend more than a few passing moments appreciating the stately bridge, but without it the desert town might be little more than what it was 50 years ago.   . 

Though London Bridge was indeed falling down in the early ‘60s, it’s still standing after nearly two centuries, and it’s one of the state’s iconic landmarks. 

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