London Bridge

February 1, 2006
Filed under Travel

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Remember 1968? That was a good year for Richard Nixon – he was elected president. And also for Simon and Garfunkel — their Mrs. Robinson was the record of the year. The Graduate was the big movie. Airport was the most popular book and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In was the No. 1 show on television. Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. was No. 2. Most of us watched television in black and white then. Only 24 percent of us had color televisions. The major news stories from overseas that year included the capture of the USS Pueblo by North Korea, and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. But the news that confounded the civilized world, of course, was a report out of the United Kingdom: The very-British London Bridge had been sold to an American, Robert McCulloch, an industrialist (chain saws, mostly) turned land-developer.

McCulloch planned to disassemble the bridge, stone by stone, and move it to the Sonora Desert in Arizona. The Brits were flabbergasted. (Who wasn’t?) But at least the country’s largest museum piece would not end up in Piccadilly Circus, some said, or as bar tops or souvenir paperweights. “London Bridge” has existed for nearly 2,000 years, beginning with a wooden crossing believed to have been in place in the First Century A.D. This current one took six years to build and was dedicated in 1831. It survived World War II in good shape, but has lasting scars from low-level air battles over London. The world had been hearing for a decade that the 130,000-ton bridge was sinking into the clay bottom of the Thames River. It could no longer handle the throb of busy city traffic, and 50,000 pedestrians crossing it every day.

Once the intended sale was announced, bids for it came in from all over the world. Whoever ended up with this colossal heirloom would make worldwide headlines, a fact not lost on Mr. McCulloch. He was in the fourth year of building Lake Havasu City, and running the greatest marketing airlift in history. Between 1964 and 1978, his fly-in airline flew 2,702 flights from all areas of the United States and Canada, bringing in 137,000 “see-before-you-buy” prospects to this barren desert, which was becoming known as the “West Coast of Arizona.” Still thought of by many as cowboy-and-Indian country, this desert was an unbelievable contrast with mid-town London — as dissimilar sites as this planet has to offer.

To uproot this celebrated bridge, used for ages by Europe’s aristocracy, and make it a horse trail for the likes of Wyatt Earp and Geronimo, gave the story a satirical life of its own. Newspaper datelines soon shifted from London to Lake Havasu City. It was an only-in-America happening. Arizona is not thought of as having a great river, at least not with the reputation like the Thames. But it does — the Colorado runs down its western edge, forming its border with California after exiting the Grand Canyon. The bridge, however, was not going to span the Colorado. It would be unceremoniously resurrected on dry land — what’s drier than the desert — at the base of a peninsula that juts into Lake Havasu, a reservoir of the Colorado.

Anyway, 22 million pounds of coded granite blocks were moved a quarter of the way around the world and reassembled — all 10,276 of them — in precisely the order in which they stood in England for nearly a century and half. Then in 1971, the sand beneath the bridge spans was scooped up and trucked away and the peninsula was cut loose from the rest of Arizona. A mile-long canal created a new island in the lake, and London Bridge again took on the business of being a bridge. “It was dedicated the first time by King William the VI in 1831. When it was Bob McCulloch’s turn here in 1971, I think he wanted to out-do the party the King threw.

He brought in gourmet chefs from Beverly Hills to feed his 800 guests, including a large contingent from London, led by the Lord Mayor.” Lee Shoblom and I were having lunch at Shugrue’s Restaurant, which overlooks the bridge and the touristy English Village at the foot of it. Lee came here in 1967 to start a radio station. He was the only broadcaster here for 20 years. Lee’s AM radio station went on the air in 1970. “Lake Havasu became known as the consistently hottest city in the country. When it was 21-degree F below in International Falls, Minnesota, I would call the guys with the morning shows there and we would have on-the-air chats about the weather. Likewise, when it was 120 here and 65 there, they would call me. “Lake Havasu City was young then, with 8,000 residents,” Lee continued. “Believe me, every last one of them got into the spirit of the day — actually it lasted three days.

There was a party tent on the bridge, a huge thing. It was lined with satin and had crystal chandeliers that were five feet in diameter. “Recordings of Big Ben chimed around the clock. There were security people dressed as English bobbies. I figured they were guys in costume, maybe even actors. I went to record an interview with one and found they were the real McCoy; McCulloch had imported actual bobbies from London.” The lake, with the island McCulloch created, has become exceedingly popular — so popular it’s created a supreme irony of the American West. Which brings me to maybe the last chapter of this story that began in 1968. The London Bridge can’t handle today’s traffic. Very soon now, they either have to truck the sand back in to build a road — making the island a peninsula again — or put up another bridge.

Bill’s e-mail address: roadscribe@aol.com.

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