How the old London Bridge was rebuilt in Arizona after sale in 1968

How the old London Bridge was rebuilt in Arizona after sale in 1968

London Bridge is… sailing to America: How the original structure which had spanned the Thames since 1831 was taken down and rebuilt in the Arizona desert after being sold to an eccentric businessman 55 years ago

  • The bridge was sold to chainsaw magnate Robert P McCulloch for $2.4million
  • It had to be replaced because the structure was too narrow for modern traffic 

It is a nursery rhyme that every Briton will have heard at one time or another.

Since the 18th-Century London Bridge is Falling Down has kept children entertained for generations. 

But on this day in 1968, the real London Bridge, which had stood since 1831, was sold to an eccentric American businessman – before being rebuilt in the Arizona desert. 

Over the course of three years, it was pulled down stone by stone and then put back up in the new Lake Havasu City, built by industrialist Robert P McCulloch.

Amid ultimately disproven rumours that McCulloch had thought he was buying Tower Bridge, the venture proved a huge success as the old stones of London drew millions of tourists to Lake Havasu.

Today, the bridge remains the city’s key attraction, with its granite blocks now surviving the intense sunshine and temperatures that regularly rise beyond 40C. 

On this day in 1968, the real London Bridge, which had stood since 1831, was sold to an eccentric American businessman – before being rebuilt in the Arizona desert. Above: London Bridge is seen crossing Havasu Lake at Lake Havasu City in May 1972

The bridge opened to huge fanfare in its new destination in October 1971. A hot air balloon was released into the air, pulling drapery from a gleaming plaque. Above: The bridge is seen in the background as the balloon stands on the ground before being released

The London Bridge that was sent to Arizona was opened by King William IV. 

It had featured in Charles Dickens’s novel Little Dorrit and was a famous part of the capital. 

The bridge that it had replaced has stood since 1209 and there had been other structures since the Roman occupation of Britain in the first century. 

The 1831 bridge was put up for sale because it was too narrow to cope with increasingly wide modern cars, buses and trucks.

It had also been sinking by around one inch every four years. Its concrete replacement, which still stands today, opened in 1973.

The idea to sell it to an American had come from former journalist Ivan Luckin, who was then serving on the body responsible for London’s bridges.

There was also precedent for such a venture. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst had bought several old European buildings and shipped them to his huge estate in the US.

American businessman Robert P McCulloch, who had enjoyed financial success selling chainsaws. Above: McCulloch with one of his chainsaws in 1952  

Work on the dismantling of the old London Bridge over the River Thames. The parts that were to be moved were numbered so that they could be put up correctly once in the US

People and traffic are seen crossing the original London Bridge in 1900, when it had been standing for nearly 70 years

Traffic is seen passing across the old London Bridge in 1964. It was opened by King William IV in 1831 and had featured in Charles Dickens’s novel Little Dorrit

The new London Bridge opened in March 1973. The concrete structure still stands today

Luckin had a sales brochure printed and then went to find a buyer. In stepped McCulloch, who was part-way through building his new city next to Lake Havasu.

The lake had been formed by the damming of the Colorado River. 

The Daily Mail’s 1968 report of the bridge’s move to Arizona

But because the water at one end was going stagnant, McCulloch decided to redirect it and turn the peninsula into an island. 

He then decided that the old London Bridge would be the perfect showpiece structure to get people and traffic to the island and back.

The businessman paid around $2.4million for the bridge’s stones, which weighed more than 30,000 tonnes. 

Also purchased were the bridge’s original orante lampposts, which had been made from melted-down cannons captured after Britain’s victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

It took nearly three years to dismantle and re-erect. Each stone that was to go abroad had to be numbered so that it could be re-constructed once in the US.

The stones were put onto a cargo ship that sailed through the Panama Canal to Long Beach, California. They were then taken by truck to Lake Havasu City.  

The bridge’s foundation stone in its new destination was laid by Sir Gilbert Inglefield, the then Lord Mayor of London, in September 1968.

Amazingly, the bridge was built on dry land, before sand was dug out from underneath to create a mile-long channel that was filled with water.

The project was overseen by British engineer Robert Beresford.

As detailed in 2013 book London Bridge in America, by Travis Elborough, some of the stones were still pockmarked with shrapnel damage from the Second World War or etched with ancient graffiti. 

After a new substructure had been built, the original stones were gradually incorporated into it. 

Whilst some stones were put in upside down or in the wrong order, the completed bridge was the spitting image of its original iteration back in Britain. 

To celebrate the bridge’s opening, a tent that stood 40feet high was erected to host a gala dinner. Above: The tent is seen on the bridge

When the bridge opened in October 1971, thousands of people flocked across it 

Miss Lake Havasu City, Deborah Dennis shows the reconstructed London Bridge to Sir Peter M Studd, the Lord Mayor of London, on the eve of its official opening

London Bridge is seen in Lake Havasu City in 1994. It remains a popular tourist attraction

Once the bridge was completed, dynamite was used to fill the new channel beneath it with water from Lake Havasu.

In contrast to the dirty water of the Thames, a streak of clear blue now ran beneath the bridge.

In a sweltering day in October 1971, with temperatures hitting more than 40C (105F), the then lord mayor of London Sir Peter Stud was present as the bridge was opened.

A huge parade filled with revellers in fancy dress was there to mark the occasion.

They included a brace of Maid Marians, Puritans, cowboys and some Dickensian chimney sweeps.

A tent that stood 40feet high was erected to host a gala dinner on the bridge in the evening. 

Inside were huge chandeliers hanging from the roof and suits of armour and coats of arms adorning the walls. 

It was as if medieval England had come with the bridge to the desert. A recording of the chimes of Big Ben were also used to signal the start of the festivities. 

The next day, the visitors from Britain were treated to a parachute display and a trip on a miniature paddle steamer, before renditions of God Save the Queen and the Star Spangled Banner were played. 

In a speech, the Lord Mayor hoped that the bridge would serve as a ‘lasting monument’ to the ‘bonds of friendships and mutual goodwill… between the American and British people’. 

The Mayor then helped to release a hot air balloon into the sky. As it rose into the air, the balloon pulled away a piece of fabric that was covering a commemorative plaque. 

Then, until sunset, what author Mr Elborough described as ‘a cross between a Fourth of July parade and an episode of game show It’s a Knockout’ ensued until sunset.

There were Chemehuevi Indians in full battle dress, and Boy Scouts holding flags for each of the US’s 50 states. 

There were also bicyclists riding Penny-farthings and men dressed as Yeomen of the Guard.  

What might have seemed like a gimmick by McCulloch worked. 

The old London Bridge is seen in Arizona in October 2021, when the city marked the 50th anniversary of it opening

Within three years of the bridge re-opening, Lake Havasu was receiving three million visitors a year, many of whom were drawn by the huge chunks of English history at its heart.

It was so popular that it became the biggest tourist attraction in the United States after the Grand Canyon. 

Today, the bridge is still a central part of Lake Havasu City, performing its purpose admirably. 

Each year, events and festivals are held on and around the bridge, whilst several hundred bats live in its nooks and crannies.  

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