Havasu’s quick growth impressed a nation

March 19, 2019

Fifty years ago, a town of fewer than 5,000 residents captured America’s imagination, as well as the interest of thousands who envisioned a future for themselves in the Southwest.

During the World War 2, the area that would become Lake Havasu City was home to “Site Six,” a U.S. Army Air Corps rest area and training ground. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that entrepreneur, inventor and Havasu founder Robert P. McCulloch saw the potential for more.

McCulloch captained several companies prior to 1960, building aircraft engines, and later boat engines as the owner of California-based McCulloch Motors. McCulloch’s fortune swelled, however, with his invention of the first light, one-man chainsaw — the McCulloch 3-25. Following the success of his inventions, McCulloch took an unexpected step: To build a city.

According to popular myth, McCulloch was flying over the Arizona desert on his way to California when he saw the area from his window, and decided that Lake Havasu would be the perfect place to test his company’s outboard boat motors. McCulloch put plans in motion to acquire about 18,000 acres of the then-state-owned property which would eventually become home to a McCulloch motor factory, hundreds of employees; and later, a booming tourism industry.

In 1963, McCulloch’s plans for Havasu were growing to fruition. That year, he purchased 26 square miles of Havasu’s desert landscape to fulfill his vision for the city, in what was at the time the largest sale of state land ever sold in Arizona. Development of the area began a year later, and McCulloch turned to one of his employees to make his vision for Havasu a reality: C.V. Wood.

Before his tenure as president of McCulloch’s oil company, Wood was one of the original planners for Disneyland, as well as the first Six Flags theme park in Arlington, Texas. It was Wood’s design for Havasu that gives the city its unique layout today.

Foregoing the standard grid-design of countless other cities, Wood implemented a road system that could be described as similar to an amphitheatre; with streets and houses curving upward along Havasu’s sloping hills. It was Wood’s plan that every Havasu resident, with rare exception, would have an unobstructed view of nearby Lake Havasu.

But the city struggled in its youth. Havasu was hundreds of miles from any major population center, with no highways and few paved roads connecting the city to the rest of the country. Through his company’s real estate branch, Holly Development, McCulloch roused interest in the fledgeling community with free flights to Havasu and magazine advertisements describing the community as an oasis in the Arizona desert.

As publicity for Havasu grew, the rest of the nation took notice. Roger Echelberger moved from Illinois to Lake Havasu City in 1971, and remembers the city’s early days.

“I moved here when I was 34 with a wife and no job,” Echelberger said. “I was just crazy enough to think it would work out, and it did. Back then there was hardly anything out here … our kids went to Starline Elementary, but there weren’t any roads. We had decided to come out west — everyone thought we were crazy at the beginning.”

Havasu was garnering interest among prospective pioneers, but to draw the eyes of the nation to a remote speck on Arizona’s west coast, McCulloch would need a grand gesture. In 1965, he found one.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, the London Bridge was sinking. Originally built by John Rennie in 1831, the London Bridge had become unable to bear the weight of modern motor vehicles. The bridge, which bore lamp posts smelted from the remains of Napoleon Bonaparte’s cannons, and which endured gunfire from Nazi pilots in World War 2, would need to be replaced.

London officials chose to sell the bridge, an idea considered ludicrous at the time, according to BBC journalist Lauren Potts, in a 2018 feature celebrating the 50th anniversary of the bridge’s purchase. It was a ludicrous idea, met with an even more ridiculous plan by McCulloch.

McCulloch purchased the London Bridge for about $2.5 million - or about $19.5 million by today’s standards. The bridge was dismantled, and each stone was shipped through the Panama Canal, to arrive in San Francisco. It was then shipped to the Arizona desert, where the London Bridge would be rebuilt in Lake Havasu City.

“I was in elementary school when it happened,” said Toni Ade, who first learned of the sale during a news broadcast. “It was fascinating … I was living in Minnesota at the time, and we were still singing that song on the playground. The reaction went across the U.S. … it was like landing on the moon or something. It was a big deal.”

The London Bridge opened in Lake Havasu City Oct. 10, 1971, with a citywide celebration attended by thousands.

“When (McCulloch) built the London Bridge, it was very popular,” Echelberger said. “When I moved here, times were good. There was a lot of construction, a lot of new building, and a lot of new businesses coming into town.”

According to Havasu resident Rick Kingsbury, who spoke with BBC journalists last year about the bridge’s arrival, the bridge was tantamount to Havasu’s early success.

“It was like a rocket ship,” Kingsbury said in a 2018 interview. “In the three years it took to build the bridge, the population tripled.”

Not all of the bridge was rebuilt over Bridgewater Channel, however. Stones remain from the original structure at Lake Havasu City’s maintenance yard, alongside the remains of London police boxes and other effects from the bridge’s colorful history.

The bridge itself now receives hundreds of thousands of visitors per year, with guests arriving in Havasu from around the globe. It now remains one of Arizona’s most popular tourist attractions.