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How The London Bridge Was Sold to America

For centuries, children and kindergarteners have sung and danced to the tune of London Bridge is falling down, but when engineers discovered that the London Bridge was actually falling down in the early 1900s, it was no laughing matter. The stone bridge was just over a century old, and was the busiest point in London crossed by 8,000 pedestrians and 900 vehicles every hour. Surveyors found that the bridge was slowly sinking—about one third of a centimeter every year. When measurements were taken in 1924, they found that the bridge’s east side stood some 9 cm lower than the west side. Another four decades had passed before the City Council could arrive at a decision.

Council member Ivan Luckin suggested that instead of demolishing the bridge, they should try to sell it.

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The London Bridge in Lake Havasu City. Photo credit: Adventures On Wheels/Shutterstock.com

His suggestion was met with incredulity, but after some deliberation, the Council agreed they could use the money and put the bridge on market. It was 1967.

In the months that followed, many inquiries came to the Council about the bridge, but there were no firm offers. Finally, with five weeks to go before the closing date, March 28, 1968, Mr. Luckin volunteered to go to America in order to sell it. At a press conference at the British-American Chamber of Commerce in New York, when a journalist asked what was so special about the bridge—after all, the bridge was neither too old (built in 1832), nor had houses on it, or was the subject of the nursery rhyme (the rhyme predates the bridge)—Mr. Luckin replied: “London Bridge is not just a bridge. It is the heir to 2,000 years of history going back to the First Century AD, to the time of the Roman Londinium ..."

Shortly after, Robert McCulloch, a businessman from Missouri and the owner of McCulloch Oil, signed the sale contract for $2.46 million.

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The London Bridge in London, before it was dismantled and brought to Lake Havasu City.

A few years ago, McCulloch had obtained from the government thousands of acres of land near Arizona’s Lake Havasu, a large body of water created by a dam on the Colorado River, under the condition that McCulloch would develop the land. He founded the community of Lake Havasu City at the site, but he had trouble bringing in prospective land buyers. When his business associate C.V. Wood told him about London Bridge, the two concluded that it was exactly the kind of thing Lake Havasu needed to make it an attractive resort city and a tourist destination.

The 950-feet-long, 33,000-ton structure was carefully dismantled block by block, packed into crates and then shipped through the Panama Canal to Long Beach, California. From Long Beach, the granite blocks were trucked 300 miles to its destination. It cost McCulloch $7 million just to ship the blocks.

Then began the complicated process of reassembling the structure. Fortunately, everything was meticulously planned. Before dismantling, workers had carefully numbered each stone, so the reconstruction process—though slow and laborious, taking 3 years to finish—went without any major hiccups. Inevitably, some of the stones were damaged and had to be replaced with local granite. To give the newer stones the century-old look, they were covered with soot from kerosene burners.

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Construction of the London Bridge in Lake Havasu City.

To ensure the bridge could handle modern traffic, a hollow core of steel-reinforced concrete was built and over this the old granite blocks were laid. Because there was no river in Lake Havasu City, the bridge was built over dry land, but as the project neared completion, a mile-long channel was cut under the bridge and water from Lake Havasu was allowed to fill in.

The London Bridge officially opened on October 10, 1971 with much fanfare. There were fireworks, a parade, entertainment, dramatic release of hundreds of balloons and white doves, colorful hot air balloon landings and special guests and dignitaries such as the Lord Mayor of London.

McCulloch’s gamble paid off and land sales in Lake Havasu City skyrocketed. From a population of just a few hundred in the 1960s, the town blossomed to 10,000 by 1974. That year, the bridge drew nearly two million visitors to the new city.

Today, Lake Havasu City is home to 52,000 residents. For them, the bridge is just a part of everyday life, providing the only access to and from the marina. “The novelty of driving over London Bridge has passed”, writes RoadsideAmerica.

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The opening day.

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The bridge today. Photo credit: TJfrom AZ/Flickr

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Aerial photo of London Bridge in Lake Havasu City. Photo credit: S. Winkvist/Wikimedia

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