Why an American Bought London Bridge

London Bridge as it now stands at Lake Havasu City, Arizona
London Bridge as it now stands at Lake Havasu City, Arizona

by Ray Setterfield

June 7, 1761 — Born on this day, Scottish civil engineer John Rennie was responsible for three important landmarks in central London – Waterloo Bridge, Southwark Bridge and London Bridge, which in an astonishing deal was sold to an American tycoon in 1968.

“London Bridge is falling down, falling down . . .” runs the popular children’s rhyme. In the 1960s it wasn’t actually falling down, but surveys showed that it was sinking by about 2.5cm every eight years. It would have to be replaced.

Enter Ivan Luckin, a member of the Common Council of the City of London who came up with what seemed a preposterous idea of putting the bridge up for sale. He said later: "They all thought I was completely crazy when I suggested we should sell London Bridge.”

But Luckin’s “crazy” idea was the answer to a prayer for American oil tycoon Robert P. McCulloch. He had spent millions buying more than 16,000 acres of Arizona desert to establish a township. Then his business partner, CV Wood, who had planned and supervised the creation of Disneyland in California, mapped out what was to become Lake Havasu City.

It looked fine, but there was something missing: a major attraction; something to pull in visitors and literally put the town on the map. That’s when McCulloch heard that London Bridge was up for sale.

He jumped at the chance and paid $2,460,000 for the historic bridge. It was dismantled stone by stone and all 10,276 numbered pieces were shipped through the Panama Canal to Long Beach, California, then carried on trucks to Lake Havasu for reassembly.

The bridge that McCulloch bought was officially New London Bridge, the foundation stone for which was laid in 1825 by “the Grand Old Duke of York” – formally known as Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (1763–1827).

It was designed by John Rennie but not constructed in his lifetime. The bridge replaced one that had stood since medieval times.

Soon after the sale rumours began that McCulloch mistakenly thought that he was buying Tower Bridge, the iconic combined bascule and suspension structure that has become a symbol of London and stands next to the Tower. Luckin denied this was the case.

The rumour is also dismissed in the book, London Bridge in America by Travis Elborough (Jonathan Cape), which tells the complete story. The author points out that McCulloch was a smart businessman and when he came to sign the sale documents he was photographed on London Bridge with Tower Bridge in the background.

The bridge now spans a man-made canal and forms the centrepiece of an English-style theme park that includes a mock-Tudor shopping mall. It has become Arizona's second-biggest tourist attraction, after the Grand Canyon.

Travis Elborough says the bridge seems “curiously right” where it is.
“Under a blazing sun and a pure cerulean sky, its reconstructed neoclassical arches appear strikingly refined . . . and far more convincingly Greco-Roman than they could ever have done in London.”

Published: May 2, 2017

Related Articles and Photos

Articles on Events in June