Lake Havasu City, Arizona
Some historians think that the American Empire peaked in 1969, when NASA put a man on the moon. But if we were to make our own self-kicking machine pronouncement, we'd say that the peak happened a year earlier, when the cash-strapped City of London sold its famous London Bridge to an American oilman.
Robert P. McCulloch, who also manufactured chainsaws, paid $2.5 million for the bridge. He then paid another $7.5 million to have it pulled apart, crated, shipped to the U.S., and reassembled as the centerpiece of a city that he was building in the Arizona desert. As a final gesture, McCulloch had the bridge declared an antique to avoid paying taxes on it.
(America has a number of replicas of Old World wonders, some quite impressive, but this is a rare instance in which we nabbed the real thing.)
The bridge is 950 feet long and weighs 33,000 tons. It's sometimes confused with the more visually interesting Tower Bridge (which remains in London) and sometimes mistakenly believed to date from the Middle Ages (it was built in 1824). The only thing that the bridge really has going for it is the "London Bridge" name, but that was enough for McCulloch. He had it rebuilt on dry land, then had a mile-long "river" dug underneath it, turning a Lake Havasu peninsula into an island and giving the bridge something to do.
Decades have passed since its arrival, and the novelty of driving over London Bridge has passed for Lake Havasu City, if not for the tourists. The town was built to be self-supporting, and it has succeeded. It's the most lively metropolis within 150 miles. To a younger generation, London Bridge is just the quickest route between the Burger King and the Javelina Cantina.
A Merry-Olde-England mini-resort, built next to the bridge in the 1970s, is fading fast. Forlorn, mostly-empty Tudor buildings crowd around the bridge's northwest end. A set of elaborate wrought-iron gates seemed in good repair, but beyond them we found that the British lion fountain was dry and the London Arms Pub & Playhouse was shuttered. Gray porta-potties flanked a lonely red English telephone booth with a missing door. An abandoned double-decker London bus with weathered paint and busted windows -- looking like a victim of The Blitz -- stood across the empty plaza. Not even its conversion into a frozen yogurt stand had saved it.
On the northeast side, the World Famous English Village Mall was hanging on with an Indian art store, a massage center, and a place named "Hot Bikinis." We went to the last surviving London Bridge gift shop, bought a chip of the bridge glued to a card, and asked the cashier what had happened. She said that the guy who owned the English Village wanted to close it and build waterfront condos instead. The town had refused -- and now the attraction sits in limbo.
Lake Havasu City could rename its resort "28 Days Later English Village" ("I'll meet you at Shaun of the Dead Pub!") and get away with it for a while. But a zombie approach seems improper for something with the pedigree of London Bridge. Instead, the town should oust the slacker landlord, fix up the place, and find another oilman to buy another piece of London. Inject some British pluck into your franchise, Lake Havasu City! Tower Bridge might be available (and it would eliminate some of the confusion), and then there's Trafalgar Square, St Paul's Cathedral, Piccadilly Circus....
Jan. 2009: Lake Havasu City added London Bridge onto a long list of important projects submitted by US mayors to the federal government. They hope to get $250,000 to repair the bridge. No mention of the English Village, though, which Holito reports showed signs of restoration work on the fountain.