LONDON BRIDGE MAP

LONDON BRIDGE MAP

With a pitch worthy of Barnum, London sells an old bridge to a new city in Arizona.

In 1958 Robert P. McCulloch, an American entrepreneur, flew over the Arizona desert in search of a test site for outboard motors. He spotted an abandoned U.S. Army Air Corps site that fronted Lake Havasu, a 45-mile (72-kilometer)-long reservoir formed when the Parker Dam was completed in 1938. Instead of barren scrub, McCulloch envisioned a planned community that would support his various business ventures. C. V. Wood, a master planner who had previously worked on the development of Disneyland, joined the enterprise, and together they created Lake Havasu City in 1963. By 1968 the place was thriving.

At the same time, London Bridge was sinking, a victim of the Thames’s porous subsoil, its own great weight, and heavy foot and vehicular traffic. John Rennie’s last great work, the five-arched granite bridge was one of many Thames crossings at that site, over the centuries becoming steeped in lore and legend that far exceeded Rennie’s straightforward design. What price do you offer for an antique bridge whose principal assets are legend, architectural beauty, quality granite, and a song handed down from generation to generation reporting the bridge’s antecedent is falling down?

At the insistence of one Ivan F. Luckin, the city of London was persuaded to mount an international campaign, directed primarily at Americans, to sell the bridge. Fortunately, McCulloch was in the market for a bridge to span a channel that had yet to be dug to eliminate a blockage in one part of Lake Havasu. London, maddeningly, would not name a price, preferring instead to field bids, indicating that decorum and good intentions would count as much as money.

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McCulloch and Wood determined that the cost of dismantling and shipping the bridge’s granite blocks would run about $1.2 million, a figure they doubled; assuming other prospective buyers would come up with the same formula, they then added $1,000 for each year of McCulloch’s life. Even before their winning bid of $2,460,000 was formally announced in 1968, British headlines read, London Bridge Falls to the Apaches.

There have been many “London Bridges” over the past two thousand years. Old London Bridge, built by Peter de Colechurch and completed in 1209, stood for more than six hundred years. It replaced a series of timber bridges that had either burned or collapsed, most notably in 1014, when the Vikings pulled one down while it was full of Danish soldiersa feat said to have been immortalized in the rhyme “London Bridge Is Falling Down.”

John Rennie (1761-1821), one of the great bridge builders of the nineteenth century, drew up plans for the London Bridge in 1821; his design was eventually accepted and executed by his son John.

It took three years to dismantle, ship, and reconstruct the bridge in the desert.

Under the supervision of Robert Beresford, a British civil engineer, a new steel-reinforced concrete core was built and then faced with the imported masonry. The construction itself was accomplished by 40 men in a year and a half; in contrast, the original bridge demanded the efforts of 800 men who labored for seven years and suffered 40 fatalities. When the reconstruction was completed, a channel was dredged beneath the bridge. It was dedicated in 1971. Two years later, the English dedicated a modern replacement bridge over the Thames.

Although it has been said that McCulloch “bought a bridge he didn’t need for a river he didn’t have,” the relocation of the London Bridge was ingenious, granting an unknown desert oasis an instant cultural identity and conferring immortality on an old but structurally ordinary bridge.

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