Lake Havasu City, Ariz., is home to one of the most unusual tourist attractions in America — the London Bridge. Yes, the real London Bridge, the one that was falling down in London and by the mid-1960s needed to be replaced. The bridge was once a huge tourist attraction. But the last few times I have visited, its “English Village” was like a ghost town.
Robert McCulloch, who made chainsaws, bought the bridge in 1968 for $2.46 million and had it shipped to what is now Lake Havasu City—then a dusty outpost along man-made Lake Havasu. After buying 3,353 acres of land along the lake in 1958 for a master retirement community, the government tossed in another 13,000 acres for free if McCulloch would agree to develop it. So he bought the bridge as a promotional gimmick, shipped it over brick by brick from London, then reassembled it over the desert next to his new city. When it was done, he dug a canal beneath it so the bridge could actually cross some water.
Then he hired Disneyland designer C. V. Wood, Jr., to build a one-acre English village next to the bridge. McCulloch flew potential residents into the town in private airliners, wined and dined them and then sold them property. Seven years after the bridge was erected, the town’s population had swelled from mostly lizards and snakes to 8,000 people. For a while, it buzzed with tourists.
Today, the village houses restaurants, a couple of clothing stores, a coffee shop, a few gift shops, and the Lake Havasu City Visitor Center.
I talked to some folks in the Visitor Center there, which is a good place, actually — interesting historical exhibits and a free movie about the bridge, and a gift shop where you can buy T-shirts, coffee mugs and, if you wish, a tiny chunk of the bridge for a dollar. Well, you used to be able to buy a piece, anyway, and it used to be a dollar…
OH, THE BRIDGE HAS DONE ITS JOB. More than 58,000 people now live in Lake Havasu City and it’s still growing. The family of the late Robert McCulloch must be filthy rich: all that free land the government gave McCulloch that he then sold must have provided him and his heirs a pretty penny. I know a thousand rural small towns across America that would do anything for a tourist attraction like the London Bridge. Tourists bring in badly needed dollars to any community that can attract them. Most small towns are too poor to do much except maybe get everybody in town to clean out their basements and attics for a Pioneer Museum. Yawn! So what’s wrong with Lake Havasu City with its incredibly cool bridge? The bridge is still billed as the number two tourist attraction in Arizona next to the Grand Canyon. I don’t believe it.
If you’re near the area, it is worth a detour to see the bridge itself. There’s a good restaurant, Shugrues, across the bridge on the “island,” with a great view of the bridge. Oh, walk around the village while you’re there, but don’t expect to see much, although the London Bridge Candle Factory, the “world’s largest candle shop” is interesting with some cool candles. A few boat tours leave from the village or you can rent a paddleboat, both fun to do. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you can even cruise on a tiki boat.
If you do visit Lake Havasu City with your RV, stay at Lake Havasu State Park, only a 15-minute walk from the bridge. 50-amp service is offered at all sites for about $35-$40 a night. It’s a beautiful campground, right along the lake. And if you’re into water sports or fishing, make this your headquarters for a load of recreational opportunities. And, finally … there are many boondocking opportunities just outside town — stay free in your RV for weeks at a time.
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