Havasu History

London Bridge Grand Opening
London Bridge Dedication Day
October 1971

The miracle was not that Robert P. McCulloch was able to transport, piece by piece, the historic London Bridge almost halfway across the globe and reconstruct it in the Arizona desert. The miracle was that he was able to build a city in that same piece of desert, especially considering there was no major highway winding its way through the would-be city, connecting it to the rest of the country and providing a stopover for weary travelers.

According to local legend, McCulloch first spied the eventual site of what would become Lake Havasu City, when he flew over the area in search of a location to test the outboard boat motors he manufactured. Had he flown over that site less than thirty years prior, there would have been no Lake Havasu to host the McCulloch test center.

Prior to Parker Dam

The building of Parker Dam created Lake Havasu in the 1930s.  Until the construction of the dam system, what is now Lake Havasu was a remote section of the Colorado River, winding its way through the rugged and remote desert terrain.

In the early 1800s, mountain men made their way up that section of the river, trapping for beavers in the streams.  By the 1830s, the formable Mohave Indians made the area less desirable for the trappers, and so the mountain men moved on.

Spaniards also found their way into the region, mining up and down the river in the nearby mountains. More prospectors came. Along the riverbanks, mining camps sprung up.

Havasu Anglers circa 1940
Lake Havasu Fishermen

Emergence of Fishing Camps

A century after the trappers were discouraged from the area by the Mohave Indians, the thirst for water altered the terrain with the construction of Parker Dam in the mid to late 1930s. Obscure little villages and communities were flooded and disappeared as the shoreline widened. Left behind was a ghostly reminder of another time, as the tops of trees danced eerily beneath the surface of the blue waters, providing a habitat for crappie, catfish, and bass.

Site SixFishing camps sprung up where there had once been mining camps, yet during World War II some were temporarily closed when the area was used for military test flights. On the peninsula (which is now the island joined to the mainland by the London Bridge) the military used the area for a rest and recreational site. Primitive barracks, built near the airstrip, housed the weary servicemen, flown in from Los Angeles.

When McCulloch first discovered Lake Havasu, the military had already abandoned the area, and the fishermen had reclaimed their waters. While it certainly is understandable that his first view of Lake Havasu showed breathtaking scenery of blue waters and rich and rugged mountain ranges, how he ever imagined a city at that location was more outrageous than shipping a historic, 130,000-ton bridge halfway across the world.  But, he did both.

Early Days of Robert Paxton McCulloch

Robert Paxton McCulloch was born May 11, 1911.  His maternal grandfather, John Beggs, made his fortune by investing in Thomas Edison’s inventions and founded Milwaukee’s public utility system. His own father was the president of United Railway Company, a trolley car and inter-urban railroad.

Robert McCulloch, along with his two siblings, inherited his Grandfather Beggs’s fortune in 1925. Pursuing engineering, he attended Princeton University in 1928, but transferred to Stanford, in California, a year later.  He took with him is love for boat racing, and by the time he graduated in 1932, he had won two national championship trophies for outboard hydroplane racing. It has been written that he was prouder of his racing achievements than his degree.

Two years after he graduated, he married Barbara Ann Briggs, whose parents were the Briggs of Briggs and Stratton. His first manufacturing endeavor was McCulloch Engineering Company, located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There he built racing engines and superchargers.  In his early 30s he sold the company to Borg-Warner Corporation for one million dollars.

McCulloch then started McCulloch Aviation, which he moved to California within three years.  In 1946, he changed his company’s name to McCulloch Motors.  Building small gasoline engines, his competitors included his in-laws and Ralph Evinrude.  Evinrude led the market for boat motors, while Briggs and Stratton pulled ahead in the lawn mower and garden tractor market.

Robert McCulloch & C.V. Wood
Robert McCulloch and C.V. Wood

McCulloch Chainsaws

McCulloch dominated the chainsaw niche, beginning with the first chainsaw with his name on it, manufactured in 1948.  By the next year, McCulloch’s 3-25 further revolutionized the market, with the one-man, lightweight chainsaw.

Robert McCulloch’s empire continued to expand, with the creation of McCulloch Oil Corporation in the 1950s. C.V. Wood, who had been involved with the planning of the original Disneyland and the first Six Flags Park in Arlington, Texas, became the president of McCulloch Oil. McCulloch Oil pursued oil and gas exploration, land development, and geothermal energy.

In spite of Evinrude’s market lead, McCulloch continued to pursue McCulloch Motor’s quest for the outboard market during the next decade.  This quest led him to Lake Havasu, in that search for a test site.  The searched turned into something far beyond the imagination and expectations of most people and changed the course of Arizona history.

McCulloch and Havasu

Lake Havasu
Lake Havasu

Lake Havasu, named for the Mohave word Havasu, which means blue water, sparked the imagination of McCulloch, who purchased 3,500 acres of lakeside property along Pittsburgh Point, the peninsula that eventually would be transformed into the island. The property had originally been purchased from the Santa Fe Railroad, by World War II veterans.

In 1963, on the courthouse steps of Kingman, Arizona, McCulloch purchased a 26 square mile parcel of barren desert, that would become the site for Lake Havasu City.  At the time, it was the largest single tract of state land ever sold in Arizona, and the cost per acre was under $75.

McCulloch Properties, Inc., a subsidiary of McCulloch Oil, was the division that developed Lake Havasu City. One of the first steps was to purchase Holly Development, in 1964, to utilize their licensed real estate force.

McCulloch had purchased 11 Lockheed Electras and formed McCulloch International Airlines, to fly in prospective buyers from all over the country. Splashy magazine ads enticed snow-weary would be customers to take a free flight to Paradise.  When they arrived, they were greeted by one of the Holly salesmen, who taxied them around in the trademark white Jeep.  In all, there were approximately 40 identical vehicles in the fleet, said to be the largest contingent of white Jeeps in the world.

Lake Havasu Hotel was built to accommodate the prospective buyers, during their stay. Located on McCulloch Boulevard, the only paved street in the beginning, the hotel was an oasis, offering a spectacular view of the lake. Surrounded by lush greenery, a dramatic waterfall fell from its roof.  One entrance to the hotel sported an impressive line of towering palm trees. The hotel was the site for the local high school’s first Junior Senior Prom, in 1969. It was leveled in 1988, and today its property is the site for Lake Havasu City’s Civic Center.

McCulloch Purchases the London Bridge

To spur the growth of the infant city, in 1964 McCulloch opened a chainsaw manufacturing plant in the new community. Within two years, there were three manufacturing plants, with some 400 employees.

Yet, it was the purchase of the London Bridge in 1968 that gave worldwide exposure to the development. McCulloch was searching for a unique attraction for his city, which eventually took him to London.

Historic London Bridge

For over 2000 years, a bridge spanned the River Thames, beginning with the first recorded mention of a pontoon bridge in the first century. During King Edgar’s reign (between 959-975 AD) another bridge was mentioned. That bridge eventually fell around 1014 AD, and may have inspired the familiar nursery rhyme.

According to legend, Danish pirates attacked London and seized the bridge, hurling spears and rocks to those below.  Viking chieftain Olaf Haralsen came to the locals’ aid when he and his men rowed up to the bridge’s pilings with their covered long-ships, fastened ropes to the bridge and literally pulled down the structure by the Vikings rowing furiously, thus tossing the Dane’s into the river.

The first stone bridge was built on the site in 1176, designed by Peter Colechurch. This bridge took 33 years to construct and lasted for 600 years. Some visitors to the London Bridge in Arizona expect to see Colehurch’s bridge, which has been depicted in various mediums.  Over the years, houses and shops were built on the bridge, along with a drawbridge and waterwheels to help pump water into the city.

Changes over time, along with fires and other disasters, altered the 600 year-old structure, and eventually it was replaced with another London Bridge, in 1831.  That bridge, designed by John Rennie, would eventually move 7,000 miles, some 140 years later.

London Bridge Moves to Lake Havasu, Arizona

By the early 1960’s it was apparent that the well-traveled bridge was gradually sinking into the River Thames.  It was decided that a new bridge would need to be built, to accommodate the estimated 10,000 vehicles and 100,000 pedestrians who used it on a daily basis. Rather than demolishing Rennie’s bridge, it was decided to put the historical landmark on the auction block.

When casting his bid for the London Bridge, McCulloch doubled the estimated cost of dismantling the structure, which was 1.2 million dollars, bringing the price to 2,400,000. He then added on $60,000, a thousand dollars for each year of his age at the time he estimated the bridge would be raised in Arizona. His sentimental gesture earned him the winning bid, and in 1968 he was the new owner of the London Bridge.

London Bridge Numbered Blocks
London Bridge Moves to Havasu

It took three years to complete the project. Workers dismantled the structure brick by brick, with each section marked and numbered, in much the same way Rennie had originally built it.  The granite pieces were stacked at the Surrey Commercial Docks, and then shipped through the Panama Canal, to Long Beach, California.  From Long Beach, the granite blocks were trucked inland approximately 300 miles.

At first, many of the early Lake Havasu residents did not take seriously the story of McCulloch buying the London Bridge, believing it to be some outrageous rumor.  After the story was confirmed, they watched in amazement as the historical pieces of granite piled up at a nearby Havasu worksite.

Even more amazing, was watching the transformation of the peninsula into an island, as a mile-long bridge channel was dredged, giving purpose to the transplanted landmark. Included with the bridge purchase, were the unique lampposts, molded from French cannons captured during the 1815 battle of Waterloo.

London Bridge Dedication, October 1971
London Bridge Dedication, October 1971

The London Bridge officially opened on October 10, 1971, with a gala celebration. Opening day included an elaborate fanfare; spectacular fireworks, a parade, entertainment, dramatic release of hundreds of balloons and white doves, colorful hot air balloon landings, and celebrities, such as Bonanza fame Loran Greene, and dignitaries, such as the Lord Mayor of London.

Nestled beneath the north arches of the bridge is the English Village. When new, its striking similarity to Disneyland, with its colorful exterior, immaculate grounds and vibrant flowers was often credited to C.V. Wood’s input. Spring of 1972, the new English Village hosted the local high school’s third Junior Senior Prom, just as the Havasu Hotel had done three years prior.

With the purchase of the London Bridge, McCulloch accelerated his development campaign, increasing the number of flights into the city.  At the time, the airport was located on the island.  The free flights to Lake Havasu lasted until 1978, and reportedly they totaled 2,702 flights, bringing in 137,000 prospective buyers.

Residents Prior to the London Bridge

Yet, even before the bridge gave national exposure to the new community, the first Havasu residents were lured into the area, in the early-sixties, by McCulloch’s dream.  Some of those early residents lived for a time in tents, or made do with kerosene lighting and primitive living conditions, much like their pioneer ancestors had done.

In 1963, Lake Havasu City did not qualify for incorporation under state law, and so it became a recognized Irrigation and Drainage District (IDD).  The IDD’s Board of Directors acted as city councilmen, in order to run the infant city. In the early seventies, they took steps towards incorporation by instigating a feasibility study. By the end of the decade, Lake Havasu City was incorporated, in 1978, one year after Robert McCulloch’s death.  Incorporation was made possible with a new state law that enabled a new municipality to organize as a city and to assume trusteeship of bonded debts and a Sanitary District. It also took a vote of the people, which came in 71% in favor of incorporation.

Robert McCulloch exhibit at the Lake Havasu Museum of History

McCulloch’s Later Years

McCulloch’s diverse interests continued into the last years of his life. In 1971, the same year the London Bridge officially opened, he built his first aircraft in Lake Havasu City.  It was the J-2 Gyroplane, a hybrid combination of helicopter and airplane, tested by NASA pilot James Patton, in the summer of 1973. McCulloch’s dream was to offer “an airplane in every garage” by promoting a seemingly simple aircraft that was easy to fly and could take off from a driveway.  Although he manufactured about 200 of the aircraft, the market never materialized.

Perhaps his vision for an airplane in every garage never became a reality; the same can’t be said for his remarkable dream for a city in the Arizona desert, a far more dramatic and seemingly unattainable goal.  Today, Lake Havasu City is a vibrant, prosperous community that continues to attract new residents from all over the country and the world.