11 June 2013

London Bridge in the USA

The book London Bridge in America: The Tall Story of a Transatlantic Crossing was written by Travis Elborough and published by Jonathan Cape in Feb 2013. There are three separate themes in the book that come roughly in ch­ronological order: the C19th bridge built in London, its improb­ab­le sale to the USA and the movement of world power out of Britain and into the USA.

The famous Medieval London Bridge, built in the late C12th, had to be replaced. In 1799 a competition for designs to replace the old bridge was held. The Scottish engineer John Rennie won the compet­ition with a classical design of five granite arches. It was built only 30 m from the site of the first London Bridge and was supervised by the engine­er’s own son. Work began in 1824. The old bridge continued to carry traffic in the meantime, and was not pulled down until the new bridge was opened.

The official opening of the new 283 m long and 15 m wide London Bridge took place in August 1831, in front of King William IV. The total costs, which were huge, were shared by the British Government and the London city council.

The book suggested that the bridge was somewhat inadequate for the traffic it needed to carry almost immediately and by the end of the C19th, it was totally inadequate. People were flooding into the City to work; trains transported commuters to London Bridge Station; carriages, bikes and later cars were everywhere.

London Bridge over the Thames
Late 19th century, overloaded, brown, built up
Photo credit: transpress nz

And there was a second dilemma. The bridge was sinking and the east side was sinking lower than the west side. Even though the bridge was widened and strengthened just after King Edward VII was crowned, it would eventually have to be removed and replaced.

The stroke of genius was in not destroying the bridge, but in selling it on. One London City councillor, Ivan Luckin, was the brain in question. He marketed the bridge as a symbol of historic London, a feat of engineering that could trace its lineage back to its medieval ancestor and even earlier. Were the American buyers really conned into thinking the 1830s bridge was medieval? Did they believe they were actually buying the much more impressive and iconic Tower Bridge? Elborough says no to both questions. The American buyers of the rather boring London Bridge knew exactly what they were getting, but they were swayed along in a mist of history and symbolism.

It was actually a meeting of the minds. Motor and aircraft entre­pren­eur Robert Paxton McCulloch (1911–1977) was the key man in the creation of a new city on Lake Havasu in the Arizonan desert in the early 1960s. And it was McCulloch who decided that his new city needed something significant to make people take notice. The Statue of Liberty was not going to be moved from New York and San Fran­cisco’s Golden Gate was firmly in place. But New London Bridge was actually available!

People may well laugh at Robert McCulloch, but who would have heard of Lake Havasu City, had he not made the winning bid of $2,460,000 in April 1968? Each block was carefully numbered before the bridge was disassembled. The blocks were then shipped across the ocean via the Panama Canal to California, then packed into trucks and driven from California to Arizona. Following reconstruction of New London Bridge, Lake Havasu City re-d­edicated it in a lavish and well publicised ceremony in October 1971.

London Bridge, Lake Havasu City, Arizona
leisurely, palm trees, blue

The Guardian noted that the opening ceremony in Arizona was attended by London's lord mayor and local dignitaries, who feasted on American seafood and Cornish pasties, and were entertained in the sweltering desert heat by Pearly Kings and Queens and madrigal singers, with the recorded chimes of Big Ben in the background. London truly had arrived in the USA. Today visitors to Lake Havasu City (pop 53,000) can go to the London Bridge Resort, see the dragon symbol of the City of London, fly British flags and read the British-American Friendship Plaque.

The real estate moguls of Arizona were thanking McCulloch, not laughing at him. The City of London might have been laughing, but they too were very grateful to the wily American.


Andrew said...

I knew a little about London Bridge, but you have fleshed it out so well. Thanks.

Hels said...


when I look at all the old photos of an impossibly crowed London Bridge in the 1890-1900 era, I think they seriously misunderstood the real needs of a huge city.

elegancemaison said...

Thank you for giving the American end of the story - and for the lovely photo of the (new) London Bridge in situ there. I can remember when working in London in 1970/71 how we all laughed at the 'gullible' Americans who thought they had bought Tower Bridge.

Of course we soon found out our mistake, but until your post I was still under the impression that it was rebuilt "in the desert" - like a road to nowhere.

It was only slightly earlier that the grand old Cunard liner Queen Mary had been sold to America for use as a hotel. At the time there was also a huge market in shipping massive loads of unloved Victorian and Edwardian 'antiques' to the USA. I think we all thought the Americans were mad to want all this 'old stuff' when we in the UK were just embracing the new swinging sixties etc.

Funny that.

London Girl said...

I hope Robert Paxton McCulloch was not paupered by the purchase. Did he go on to success and fame

Hels said...


you are soooo spot on. I lived in Britain back then and thought it was a dollar-for-heritage type deal. And how can a nation "buy" culture? Nations either have it or they don't.

But what would have happened to the bridge, had it not been bought and transported? It would have been put into a giant skip and perhaps used to fill pot holes in roads.

Hels said...

London Girl

Robert P. McCulloch did two extremely clever things, decades before the London Bridge story. Firstly he married into a family that made its fortune from cast-iron engines and later aluminium engines. Secondly he made his own fortune with chainsaws, oil and gas exploration, land development and geothermal energy.

He had an airport built on the island and offered free flights to entice buyers to Lake Havasu. By the time McCulloch died in 1977, this newest project was going beautifully.

Jan Kassies said...

Hey london Girl, get your facts right!