London Bridge History

Boats in the channel under the London Bridge

How did the world-famous London Bridge come to make its home in a remote Arizona desert city? The story began centuries earlier, over 5,400 miles away in London, England.

Early History of The London Bridge

For nearly 2,000 years, a series of bridges has spanned the River Thames in London. The “Old” London Bridge of nursery rhyme fame was a stone bridge built by Peter of Colechurch, an architect and priest, between 1176 and 1209. It replaced various wooden bridges built by the Roman founders of London from AD 50–1176.

old london bridge 1209 AD
“Old” London Bridge (1209–1831)​

Olaf II of Norway, King of Norway from 1015 to 1028, led military campaigns to unite Norway into one kingdom. One of these campaigns was a sea-based attack in 1014 that pulled down one of the wooden bridges.

Two other wooden bridges were built and subsequently destroyed during this turbulent time in England’s early history. Due to uneven construction, the bridge required frequent repairs yet survived more than 600 years.

london bridge in 1757
London Bridge in 1757, by Samuel Scott

One of the more grisly periods of the bridge’s history was at the southern gateway between 1305 and 1660, when it was customary to display the severed heads of traitors impaled on pikes and dipped in tar to preserve them against the elements.

london bridge impaled heads
Heads impaled on pikes can be seen at the forefront of this drawing from 1682

The head of William Wallace, a Scottish knight and landowner who led the Wars for Scottish Independence, was the first to appear on the gate. Other famous heads on pikes included those of Jack Cade in 1450, Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher in 1535, and Thomas Cromwell in 1540. A German visitor to London in 1598 counted over 30 heads on the bridge. The practice was finally stopped in 1660, following the Restoration of King Charles II.

By the end of the 18th century, the old London Bridge needed to be replaced. It had fallen into severe disrepair and was blocking river traffic. Designed in 1799 by Scottish engineer John Rennie, the “New” London Bridge was completed in 1831.

 “New” London Bridge (1832-1968)   Photo: Michael Jefferies – CCSearch

Due to the weight of automobile traffic crossing the bridge in the early 20th Century, it began sinking into the River Thames at the rate of an inch (3 cm) every eight years. By 1924, the east side of the bridge was some three to four inches (9-12 cm) lower than the west side. 

The London Bridge in Lake Havasu City

Robert P. McCulloch, Sr.

In 1967, the Common Council of the City of London began to look for potential buyers for the London Bridge. As Lake Havasu City’s founder, chainsaw magnate Robert P. McCulloch, Sr. saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He believed–correctly, as history shows us–that reconstructing this massive icon in his new city would attract tourists and prospective buyers of residential lots.

McCulloch placed the winning bid of $2.4 million on April 18, 1968 (over $17 million in today’s dollars). McCulloch arrived at this figure by doubling the estimated cost of dismantling the structure ($1.2 million), bringing the price to $2.4 million. He then added on $60,000, a thousand dollars for each year of his age at the time he estimated the bridge would be reconstructed in Arizona.

Contrary to popular belief, McCulloch was not under the impression that he was purchasing the Tower Bridge of London.

The purchase included ornate lampposts made from the melted-down cannons captured by the British from Napoleon’s army, after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Overlooking the Bridgewater Channel, these lampposts line the London Bridge today.

london bridge lamppost
Lamppost on the London Bridge
london bridge block

After it was dismantled, each of its 10,276 exterior granite blocks from the original bridge was shipped to Lake Havasu City. Each block was numbered before the bridge was disassembled. The blocks were shipped overseas through the Panama Canal to California and trucked from Long Beach to Arizona. The shipping and assembly of the bridge, and dredging of a man-made channel underneath, cost $7 million.

The inside of the bridge is hollow because it was rebuilt with a steel framework faced with granite. This reduced its weight from 130,000 tons to 30,000 tons, while strengthening the structure in order to accommodate auto traffic.

Reconstruction of the London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, 1971
Reconstruction of the London Bridge, 1971

After three years of reconstruction, Lake Havasu City rededicated the bridge in an extravagant ceremony held on October 10, 1971. 

london bridge dedication 1971
Rededication of the London Bridge, 1971

Spanning 930 feet (280 meters), it was designed to connect pedestrians, motorists and cyclists on “mainland”  Lake Havasu City to an island on the Colorado River.

On this island in 1964, McCulloch built the Nautical Inn, now The Nautical Beachfront Resort: Arizona’s only beachfront resort.

The London Bridge Today

On October 20, 2018, Lake Havasu City celebrated the 50th anniversary of the purchase of the London Bridge. The celebration included the 690th Right Honourable Lord Mayor of the City of London, Alderman Charles Bowman, and a proclamation by Arizona Governor Douglas A. Ducey. 

The celebration closed with a traditional sheep crossing over the London Bridge, with sheep from the La Paz County/Colorado River Indian Tribe 4H Youth Program.

london bridge sheep crossing
Sheep crossing the London Bridge, a tradition from medieval England, 2018

Today the historic and, some say, haunted bridge is the second-largest tourist draw in Arizona, topped only by the Grand Canyon. Attracting visitors from around the world, its many fans include photographers, filmmakers, travel writers, history buffs, boaters, kayakers, paddle boarders and music lovers at live concerts under its acoustical arches.

Did you know?  The London Bridge is known as the world’s largest antique and the world’s most expensive souvenir. Discover more fun facts about the London Bridge.

The London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, present day
The London Bridge, present day

The Largest Antique Ever Sold by Mary Martin is an engaging and visually rich article about the London Bridge’s history and traditions. Many thanks to Brennen Matthews of ROUTE Magazine for making it available as a PDF document to download.