10 October 1971: London Bridge opens to the public in Lake Havasu, Arizona, after being shipped halfway around the world from its original home in the British capital.
The industrial revolution in Britain was great for business, but terrible for bridges.
By the 1960s it had become exceedingly clear that the advent of motor vehicles – which were much heavier than horse-drawn carriages – had been uniquely responsible for the irreversible sinking of New London Bridge into the River Thames.
The stone bridge, designed by Scottish civil engineer John Rennie and completed in 1831, connected the City of London and Southwark. But for years its pine foundations had been sinking into the riverbed, with surveys showing it was losing 2.5 cm every eight years.
The Bridge House Estates committee of the City of London Common Council knew it would have to be replaced. But an unusual idea was floated to the committee – instead of demolishing the old bridge, why not try to sell it?
A ludicrous idea and a dogged advertising campaign
Committee member Ivan Luckin, who used to work in advertising and newspapers, said he reckoned they could get £1 million by selling London Bridge, and he knew just who might buy it.
He suggested they advertise the sale across the pond, betting that some wealthy American could be persuaded to purchase a piece of history from the former colonial power.
The committee found the idea to be ludicrous, but Luckin wasn’t easily swayed. He began a targeted ad campaign, delighting Americans with claims that “London Bridge is falling down.”
The sale somehow came to the attention of Robert McCulloch, a millionaire inventor and businessman who was building a resort city in the middle of the desert in Arizona with his business partner Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood. The pair were looking for an attraction to spur interest in the settlement.
How they came to hear about the London Bridge sale is the stuff of legend – some stories say they saw an advertisement on TV while doing business in London, others say Wood got wind of it at a meeting about the sale of the RMS Queen Mary, where he supposedly asked, “Anything else for sale?”
What's certain is the sale of London Bridge to McCulloch and Wood was made official on 18 April 1968 and workers began taking it apart so it could be shipped to America.
New London Bridge gets a new life in the desert
The disassembled bridge was put on a cargo ship that made its way to California through the Panama Canal, and then trucked out into the desert where it reached its final destination.
The kicker is that Lake Havasu City didn’t even need a bridge – a canal was carved out so that London Bridge would have something to actually bridge. McCulloch also designed a sturdier steel structure to replace the old wooden one, so the bridge would be structurally-sound.
Ridiculous as it may seem, London Bridge’s arrival in Lake Havasu City, Arizona ended up paying off for McCulloch.
News of the sale put the fledgling settlement on the map, and its population nearly tripled in the three years it took to reassemble the bridge. McCulloch reportedly recuperated all of his costs related to the bridge in his lifetime.
It officially opened to the public on 10 October 1971, and the inauguration was attended by 50,000 people, including a delegation from London and a troupe of redcoat-clad cavalrymen.
Today, Lake Havasu City is home to over 57,000 residents and has become a major driving force for tourism and industry in the region.
London Bridge remains its centrepiece - the city bills the bridge as the most visited built attraction in Arizona - which may be something of an exaggeration.
But hey, stranger things have happened.