In the early 1960s, officials in England made a troubling discovery: London Bridge was falling down.

The 1,000-foot span had stood for over 130 years and survived strafing during World War II’s London Blitz, but it was unequipped for modern traffic and was slowly sinking into the River Thames at a rate of one inch every eight years. Renovations were deemed impractical, so the City of London resolved to build a wider, more car-friendly replacement. The 19th-century granite bridge seemed destined for the junkyard, but a city councilor named Ivan Luckin convinced his colleagues that it might be possible to sell it in the United States. In 1968, he crossed the pond to market the monument to prospective buyers.

Luckin knew that London Bridge might be a tough sell. Completed in 1831 from a design by engineer John Rennie, it was the less glamorous successor of several other crossings, most notably the medieval London Bridge, which stood for 600 years and was once dotted with buildings and waterwheels. Londoners considered the existing bridge dull by comparison, but after arriving in America, Luckin promoted it as a timeless landmark. “London Bridge is not just a bridge,” he announced in a press conference in New York. “It is the heir to 2,000 years of history going back to the first century A.D., to the time of the Roman Londinium.”

The London Bridge sales pitch raised more than a few eyebrows in the United States, but for one businessman, it seemed like a natural fit. Robert McCulloch was a Missouri-born industrialist who had made millions heading up companies that sold oil, motors and chainsaws. Shamelessly eccentric—he once told a reporter that the secret of his success was “booze and broads”—the tycoon also had a penchant for pursuing pie-in-the-sky business schemes. The most recent had come in 1963 when he purchased thousands of acres of land near Arizona’s Lake Havasu, an isolated body of water created by a dam on the Colorado River. McCulloch had founded the community of Lake Havasu City at the site and had designs on making it a tourist oasis, but he was still struggling to attract visitors.

ˆWhen his business associate C.V. Wood told him about London Bridge, the two concluded that it was just the kind of eye-catching centerpiece Lake Havasu needed. McCulloch even hatched a plan to carve one of the lake’s peninsulas into an island so the bridge would have something to span. “I had this ridiculous idea of bringing it to the Arizona desert,” he later joked to the Chicago Tribune Magazine. “I needed the bridge, but even if I didn’t, I might have bought it anyway.”

Negotiations for the purchase proceeded rapidly during the spring of 1968. According to McCulloch, the most difficult part was hashing out a sales price with the City of London authorities. “We poured an awful lot of scotch trying to loosen them up enough to give us some idea of how much they wanted,” he told the Chicago Tribune Magazine. Finally, after learning that dismantling the bridge would cost London $1.2 million, McCulloch and Wood decided to offer double that amount. As a sweetener, McCulloch tacked on an additional $60,000—$1,000 for each year old he would be when the bridge reopened at Lake Havasu. In April 1968, for a final price of $2,460,000, Robert McCulloch became the proud owner of the world’s largest antique.

With their purchase secured, McCulloch and Wood embarked on the herculean task of moving London Bridge to the United States. Workers began by labeling each of its granite bricks with markers that indicated their arch span, row number and position. The bridge was then disassembled, packed away in crates and shipped to Long Beach, California, via the Panama Canal. From there, a small army of trucks carried it across the desert to its new home at Lake Havasu. To ensure the bridge could handle modern traffic, construction crews built a hollow core of steel-reinforced concrete, which was then covered with 10,000 tons of the original 19th-century granite. The painstaking assembly process took place over a small strip of land that connected a peninsula to the mainland, but as the project neared completion, workers cut a mile-long channel through the isthmus and allowed it to fill with water, creating an island.

All told, the shipping, assembly and dredging took over three years and cost some $7 million—seven times as much as McCulloch had spent on the land that made up Lake Havasu City. Finally, on October 10, 1971, London Bridge was ready for its debut in the United States. In typically flamboyant fashion, McCulloch dedicated the monument in a ceremony that included skydivers, fireworks, marching bands, hot air balloons and a dinner banquet featuring lobster and roast beef—the same meal that had been served to King William IV during the bridge’s original unveiling in 1831. London’s Lord Mayor attended clad in his black ceremonial robes and accompanied by a sword bearer, and celebrities Robert Mitchum and Dan Rowan were on hand to add some star power.

“It’s a supergimmick,” the New York Times quoted one British newsman as saying. “It’s all quite mad—it could only happen in America. Only an American would think of investing that much in something as crazy as this.”

C.V. Wood, president of the McCulloch Corporation standing under the almost London Bridge near Lake Havasu City. (Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)
Getty Images / Bettmann
C.V. Wood, president of the McCulloch Corporation standing under the almost London Bridge near Lake Havasu City.

The reporter wasn’t the only one who considered the London Bridge project a crackpot scheme. By 1971, the purchase had become widely known as “McCulloch’s Folly,” and many predicted that he and Wood would live to regret it. There was even a rumor—since discredited—that the Americans had been duped into thinking they were buying the more iconic Tower Bridge. In the end, however, it was McCulloch and Wood who had the last laugh. Their whimsical purchase proved to be the marketing ploy that Lake Havasu City needed. From a population of just a few hundred in the early 1960s, the town blossomed to over 10,000 residents by 1974. In 1975, its chamber of commerce reported that the bridge had drawn nearly two million visitors the previous year.

Robert McCulloch would later gamble on several other farfetched business schemes before his death in 1977—including promoting helicopter-like “gyroplanes” as commuter vehicles. But Lake Havasu City proved to be his greatest success. The town he built from scratch is now home to over 50,000 full-time residents and boasts a thriving tourist industry. London Bridge, still standing after 185 years on two continents, remains its most recognizable landmark.

HISTORY Vault: America the Story of Us

America The Story of Us is an epic 12-hour television event that tells the extraordinary story of how America was invented.