Was an American really conned into buying the wrong London bridge?

London Bridge at home in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. Image: Ken Lund/Flickr.

How did London Bridge come to be one of the biggest tourist attractions in Arizona, second only to the Grand Canyon? Was it an error on the part of the purchaser? Or was it a clever way to dispose of a decrepit structure, making way for progress, while making a profit in the bargain?

London Bridge is where London started: the relative narrowness of the River Thames at that point is what led the Romans to found a city on the site in the first place. Over the centuries, various bridges occupied this site, linking the City to Southwark on the South Bank of the Thames. Each in turn was lost – to fire, or storm, or Vikings. The longest lived seems to have been the 12th century “Old London Bridge”, whose arches supported not just a road across the Thames, but as many as 200 buildings, of anything up to seven storeys high.

In the early 19th century, the Scottish civil engineer John Rennie won a competition to design a replacement. The new London Bridge was 100 feet west of the previous bridge: 928 feet long, 49 feet wide, and supported by five stone arches, it lasted for over a century. By the 1960s, though, the city’s population had more than quadrupled, and London Bridge was supporting cars and buses rather than horse-drawn carriages. To make matters worse, it was said to be sinking at the rate of an inch per eight years; although technically not “falling down”, it was still enough to give London’s authorities cause for concern. 


In 1967, the Greater London Council had decided that a new bridge would have to be constructed and the old one torn down. Usually, under the circumstances abandoned structures would be simply abandoned or destroyed. (Euston Arch, for example, ended up in the River Lea.) But then, Ivan Luckin, a former journalist and PR man serving on the committee working on the scheme, came up with a better idea: why not flog the bridge off to some rich eccentric? Never mind that it was only 130 years old: pitch it right, and you could sell it as an important historic artifact, and improving the state of London’s coffers into the bargain.

This was not as crazy a scheme as it may now sound. Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst – whose life inspired Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane – used to buy old European buildings, then ship them back in piles to be reassembled on his California estate. After some initial cynicism, Luckin’s colleagues embraced the idea, and the bridge was placed on the market. In order to sell the idea, Luckin himself visited New York to address the British-American Chamber of Commerce. 

At around the same time  Robert P. McCulloch, a Missouri-born oil and aviation entrepreneur and chainsaw tycoon (!), was facing his own problems. He’d founded Lake Havasu City on 16,000 acres of western Arizona land in 1963. But the eponymous lake, an arm of the Colorado River which he’d thought would make the new city an attractive resort, was in serious danger of going stagant. 

To prevent that, his engineers created a new channel, turning a peninsula into an island. That, though created a need for a new bridge. What better way to solve the problem, and to put his new city onto the map, than by buying the historic London Bridge

So in April 1968, McCulloch agreed to pay just under $2.5m for the bridge on April 18, 1968. (He was so keen to get hold of it that, despite the lack of competition, he paid twice the value the London authorities had expected.) He then spent $7m more, to have the granite blocks numbered, dismantled, trimmed to size and lugged across to the US. The reconstructed bridge, bridging the channel between Thompson Bay and Lake Havasu, opened to the public in 1971.

Some have come to believe that McCulloch had bought the wrong bridge: that he had meant to buy the far more striking Tower Bridge, but was somehow conned into buying London Bridge. There's no evidence, though, that this is true – and a fair amount that it isn't. The chainsaw entrepreneur got himself photographed on the London Bridge, with the Tower Bridge clearly visible behind him. For his part, Luckin always insisted on the honesty of the deal.

So, yes, a rich American did once agree to buy London Bridge – but no, he wasn’t conned. It’s still there, giving its name to a local resort:

If you want to find out more about this story, why not check out Travis Elborough's book, "London Bridge in America: The Tall Story of a Transatlantic Crossing".

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.