What becomes of ancient landmarks when they no longer have a use in their own city? So asks author Travis Elborough in his newest book London Bridge in America, where he tells the tall tale of the world’s largest antique and how it was literally ripped from its British roots before embarking on a 3500 mile Transatlantic journey to a waterless patch of the Arizona desert, where it still stands today.
London Bridge is said to be the foundation for not one, but two cities, Travis says. Legend suggests it existed before London and that the city was just a parasite, which grew off the bridge. Shipped stone by stone to America it then formed the foundation of a brand new, prefabricated resort town Lake Havasu.
Travis’ fascination with London Bridge first began upon hearing the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is falling down” as a child at school. “I can still vividly remember being in primary school and my teacher telling me that the real London Bridge is in America. I guess that’s where it all started for me,” he muses.
The sale of London Bridge was a particularly impressive publicity stunt, Travis says, since its sale was presented as an act of preservation during a time when attitudes towards Victorian architecture were changing dramatically. In 1967 plans to build huge motorways through London were in the works, transitioning the capital into a modern city. At around the same time the British Transport Commission demolished the original Euston Railway station, replacing its dramatic Grecian columns and archways with international modern style. This move was perceived as a rather crass destruction of art and kicked off a preservationist movement in Britain. So by the mid ‘60s the mood across the country had changed.
“Victorian buildings were seen as a horrendous throwback to an earlier time, they weren’t popular at all but this changed and people began to see there was some value in these buildings, which was telling when the Corporation of London sold the bridge because they said they didn’t want to see it broken up,” Travis explains.
The bridge, which was built in 1831 and made from 130,000 tonnes of granite, was -at that point- the heaviest thing ever built in London and by the mid 1960s it was sinking into the mud of the Thames. The marketing man behind its sale was city politician Ivan Luckin, a former journalist and huge admirer of American media tycoon Willliam Randolph Hearst.
“He created this rather wonderful publicity brochure that shrouded the bridge with myth and history, and of course the Americans loved it,” Travis tells. In essence the brochure was selling 2000 years of history. Among the prospective buyers he came across two extraordinary men. One was oil baron and chainsaw magnate Robert P McCulloch who made his fortune manufacturing the first ever one-person chainsaw. McCulloch’s chainsaw plant was in Los Angeles but he had a test centre in Lake Havasu, Arizona. The town didn’t exist before 1948; the lake was created to bring water to LA from the Colorado River.
“McCulloch found this place, it was very new and he was trying to build a whole new city in the desert with his business partner CV Wood,” Travis says. Wood, a theme park designer had a hand in creating Disneyland and was a champion chilli chef. “They were an extraordinarily dynamic duo and they decided the bridge would be the centrepiece of this new resort city and so they bought it,” the author says.
There have since been myths that the duo bought the wrong bridge and really wanted Tower Bridge, but Travis discounts this. He suggests that the whole rumour stems from unease with changes affecting London at that time. The new bridge that arrived in its place was essentially built structurally for motors and thus designed for a new era when some were still clinging to the past.
“London was moving from being almost a maritime city to more road bound and white collar,” Travis begins. “We’ve gotten used to the idea of a power station being turned into an art gallery or old warehouses becoming flats, but what do you do with old industrial buildings when they’re no longer of use to their city?” he asks. He answers his own question, suggesting that London Bridge was an extreme version of reinvention as after it was redundant in London it went on to form the basis of a whole new town in Arizona.
The Americans only bought a small portion of the bridge, around 10,000 tonnes of granite from the Southwark side. After shipping the granite over to Arizona, they erected a frame over dry land, created a channel, and then coated it with stonework from the original bridge.
The bridge’s allure was all part of America’s fascination with swinging ‘60s London. “London was hip, it was the happening city, it was going through Beatle-mania and America had a fascination with it,” Travis says. By the time the bridge opened in 1971 the love affair had faded a bit although the plan still “kind of worked”, the author concedes.
Today, around 55,000 people live at Lake Havasu. It came about at a time where Las Vegas and Palm Springs were at their height; even Disneyland was relatively new and new forms of leisure were constantly in creation. The bridge put Lake Havasu on the map and the theme was continued with an English village that had a British pub and Ye Olde style shops, which lasted until the ‘90s before dying out. “The bridge was the starting point for this very Western American place; most Americans are visiting for Spring break or are retiring there.”
It’s for this reason that visually the bridge looks somewhat surreal in the middle of the desert, Travis says. “It was a very classical bridge and if you look at old postcards it looks quite dowdy in London but it looks rather lovely, quite elegant over this blue channel surrounded by Joshua trees and mountains.”
Travis Elborough is the author of three books The Bus We Loved: London’s Affair with the Routemaster, The Long Player Goodbye, which lamented the passing of vinyl, and Wish You Were Here, a history of the British beside the sea. He is a contributing writer for the Guardian and a regular guest on Radio 4.
London Bridge in America by Travis Elborough is out now for £14.99 at leading book stores. E-book also available.