It is a children’s song that every Briton has heard.
Since the 18th century London Bridge has been Falling Down, children have been entertained for generations.
But on this day in 1968, the real London Bridge, standing there since 1831, was sold to an eccentric American businessman – before being rebuilt in the Arizona desert.
Over the course of three years, it was demolished brick by brick and then reassembled into the new Lake Havasu City, built by industrialist Robert P McCulloch.
Amid eventually disproved rumors that McCulloch thought he was buying Tower Bridge, the venture proved a huge success as London’s ancient stones attracted millions of tourists to Lake Havasu.
Today, the bridge remains the city’s main attraction, with its granite blocks now surviving the intense sunshine and temperatures regularly rising above 40C.
On this day in 1968, the real London Bridge, standing since 1831, was sold to an eccentric American businessman – before being rebuilt in the Arizona desert. Above: London Bridge crossing Havasu Lake in Lake Havasu City in May 1972
The bridge opened to much fanfare in October 1971 at its new destination. A hot air balloon was launched into the sky, pulling curtains off a shiny plaque. Above: The bridge can be seen in the background as the balloon rests on the ground before being released
The London Bridge sent to Arizona was opened by King William IV.
It featured in Charles Dickens’ novel Little Dorrit and was a famous part of the capital.
The bridge it replaced has been standing since 1209, and there have been other constructions since the Roman occupation of Britain in the first century.
The 1831 bridge was put up for sale because it was too narrow for the ever-widening modern cars, buses and trucks.
It had also sunk about an inch every four years. The concrete replacement, which still stands, opened in 1973.
The idea to sell it to an American came from former journalist Ivan Luckin, who was then a member of the body responsible for London’s bridges.
There was also a precedent for such an undertaking. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst had bought several old European buildings and shipped them to his vast estate in the US.
American businessman Robert P McCulloch, who had enjoyed financial success selling chainsaws. Above: McCulloch with one of his chainsaws in 1952
Work on the dismantling of the old London Bridge over the River Thames. The parts to be moved were numbered so that once in the US they could be set up correctly
People and traffic are seen crossing the original London Bridge in 1900, when it had stood for almost 70 years
Traffic passes over the old London Bridge in 1964. It was opened by King William IV in 1831 and featured in Charles Dickens’ novel Little Dorrit
The new London Bridge opened in March 1973. The concrete structure still stands today
Luckin had a sales brochure printed and then started looking for a buyer. In stepped McCulloch, halfway through building his new city next to Lake Havasu.
The lake was created by the damming of the Colorado River.
The Daily Mail’s 1968 report on the bridge’s move to Arizona
But because the water was stagnant on one side, McCulloch decided to divert it and turn the peninsula into an island.
He then decided that the old London Bridge would be the perfect showpiece to get people and traffic to the island and back.
The businessman paid about $2.4 million for the bridge’s stones, which weighed more than 30,000 tons.
Also purchased were the bridge’s original orante lampposts, which were made from melted down cannons captured after Britain’s victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.
It took nearly three years to dismantle and rebuild. Any brick that would go abroad had to be numbered so that it could be rebuilt once in the US.
The stones were placed on a cargo ship that was sailing through the Panama Canal to Long Beach, California. They were then trucked to Lake Havasu City.
The foundation stone of the bridge for its new destination was laid in September 1968 by Sir Gilbert Inglefield, the then Lord Mayor of London.
Amazingly, the bridge was built on dry land, before sand was excavated from below to create a mile-long channel filled with water.
The project was overseen by British engineer Robert Beresford.
As described in the 2013 book London Bridge in America, by Travis Elborough, some of the stones were still pockmarked with World War II shrapnel or etched with ancient graffiti.
After a new substructure was built, the original stones were gradually incorporated.
Although some stones were placed upside down or in the wrong order, the completed bridge was the spitting image of the original iteration in Britain.
To celebrate the opening of the bridge, a tent 12 meters high was set up to host a gala dinner. Above: The tent can be seen on the bridge
When the bridge opened in October 1971, thousands of people poured across it
Miss Lake Havasu City, Deborah Dennis shows the reconstructed London Bridge to Sir Peter M Studd, the Lord Mayor of London, on the eve of the official opening
London Bridge is featured in Lake Havasu City in 1994. It remains a popular tourist attraction
Once the bridge was completed, dynamite was used to fill the new channel below with water from Lake Havasu.
In contrast to the dirty waters of the Thames, a stripe of clear blue now ran under the bridge.
On a sweltering day in October 1971, with temperatures reaching over 40C (105F), the then Mayor of London, Sir Peter Stud, was present when the bridge was opened.
A huge parade of revelers in fancy dress was on hand to mark the occasion.
They include a bunch of Maid Marians, Puritans, cowboys, and some Dickensian chimney sweeps.
A tent 12 meters high was set up to hold a gala dinner on the bridge in the evening.
Inside, huge chandeliers hung from the roof and armor and coats of arms hung from the walls.
It was as if medieval England had come with the bridge to the desert. A recording of Big Ben’s chimes was also used to signal the start of the festivities.
The following day, visitors from Britain were treated to a parachute show and miniature paddle steamer ride before renditions of God Save the Queen and the Star Spangled Banner were played.
In a speech, the mayor hoped the bridge would serve as a “lasting memorial” to the “bonds of friendship and mutual benevolence … between the American and British people.”
The mayor then helped launch a hot air balloon into the sky. As it lifted into the air, the balloon pulled away a piece of cloth that covered a memorial plaque.
Then, until sunset, followed what author Elborough described as “a cross between a Fourth of July parade and an episode of the game show It’s a Knockout.”
There were Chemehuevi Indians in full battle dress and Boy Scouts holding flags for each of the 50 US states.
There were also cyclists on Penny farthings and men dressed as Yeomen of the Guard.
What seemed like a McCulloch gimmick worked.
The old London Bridge is on display in Arizona in October 2021, as the city celebrated the 50th anniversary of its opening
Within three years of the bridge’s reopening, Lake Havasu was receiving three million visitors a year, many of whom were attracted by the vast pieces of English history at its center.
It was so popular that it became the second largest tourist attraction in the United States after the Grand Canyon.
Today, the bridge is still a central part of Lake Havasu City and fulfills its purpose admirably.
Annual events and festivals take place on and around the bridge and several hundred bats live in the nooks and crannies.