The History of
Lake Havasu City Arizona

By Bobbi Holmes

 The miracle was not that Robert P. McCulloch was able to transport, piece by piece, the historic London Bridge, almost halfway across the globe, and reconstruct it in the Arizona desert. The miracle was that he was able to build a city in that same piece of desert, especially considering there was no major highway winding its way through the would-be city, connecting it to the rest of the country, and providing a stopover for weary travelers.
       It has been said McCulloch first spied the eventual site of what would become Lake Havasu City, when he flew over the area in search of a location to test the outboard boat motors he manufactured. Had he flown over that site less than thirty years prior, there would have been no Lake Havasu to host the McCulloch test center.
       Lake Havasu was created with the construction of Parker Dam in the 1930’s.  Until the dam systems were built, what is now Lake Havasu was a remote section of the Colorado River, winding its way through the rugged terrain.
       In the early 1800’s mountain men made their way up that section of the river, trapping for beavers in the streams.  By the 1830’s the formable Mohave Indians made the area less desirable for the trappers, and so the mountain men moved on.  Spaniards also found their way into the region, mining up and down the river in the nearby mountains. They were followed by other prospectors. Mining camps sprung up along the river banks.
       A century had past since the trappers were discouraged from the area by the Mohave Indians, when the thirst for water altered the terrain with the construction of Parker Dam in the mid to late 1930’s. Obscure little villages and communities were flooded and disappeared as the shoreline was widened. Left behind was a ghostly reminder of another time, as the tops of trees danced eerily beneath the surface of the blue waters, providing a habitat for crappie, catfish and bass.
       Fishing camps sprung up where there had once been mining camps, yet during World War II some were temporarily closed when the area was used for military test flights. On the peninsula, which is now the island that is connected to the rest of Lake Havasu City, by the London Bridge, a rest and recreation site was created for the military.  There, primitive barracks were built near the airstrip, to house the weary servicemen that were flown in from Los Angeles.
       When McCulloch first discovered Lake Havasu, the military had already abandoned the area, and the fishermen had reclaimed their waters. While it certainly is understandable that his first view of Lake Havasu showed breathtaking scenery of blue waters and rich and rugged mountain ranges, how he ever imagined a city at that location was more outrageous than shipping a historic, 130,000 ton bridge half way across the world.
       But he did both.
       Robert Paxton McCulloch had an auspicious beginning, born May 11, 1911, into a family which already included several visionaries.  His maternal grandfather, John Beggs, made his fortune by investing in Thomas Edison’s inventions, and founded Milwaukee’s public utility system. His own father was the president of United Railway Company, a trolley car and inter-urban railroad.
       Robert McCulloch, along with his two siblings, inherited his Grandfather Beggs’s fortune in 1925. Pursuing engineering, he attended Princeton University in 1928, but transferred to Stanford, in California, a year later.  He took with him is love for boat racing, and by the time he graduated in 1932, he had won 2 national championship trophies for outboard hydroplane racing. It has been written that he was prouder of his racing achievements than his degree.
       Two years after he graduated, he married Barbra Ann Briggs, whose parents were the Briggs of Briggs and Stratton. His first manufacturing endeavor was McCulloch Engineering Company, located in Milwaukee Wisconsin. There he built racing engines and superchargers.  In his early 30’s he sold the company to Borg-Warner Corporation for 1 million dollars.
       McCulloch then started McCulloch Aviation, which he moved to California within three years.  In 1946 he changed his company’s name to McCulloch Motors.  Building small gasoline engines, his competitors included his in-laws and Ralph Evinrude.  Evinrude led the market for boat motors, while Briggs and Stratton pulled ahead in the lawn mower and garden tractor market.
       It was the chainsaw niche that McCulloch dominated, beginning with the first chainsaw with his name on it, manufactured in 1948.  By the next year, McCulloch’s 3-25 further revolutionized the market, with the one man, light weight chainsaw. 
       Robert McCulloch’s empire continued to expand, with the creation of McCulloch Oil Corporation in the 1950’s. C.V. Wood, who had been involved with the planning of the original Disneyland and the first Six Flags park in Arlington Texas, became the president of McCulloch Oil. McCulloch Oil pursued oil and gas exploration, land development and geothermal energy.
       In spite of Evinrude’s market lead, McCulloch continued to pursue McCulloch Motor’s quest for the outboard market during the next decade.  This quest led him to Lake Havasu, in that search for a test site.  The searched turned into something far beyond the imagination and expectations of most people, and changed the course of Arizona history.
       Lake Havasu, named for the Mohave word “Havasu”, which means “blue water”, sparked the imagination of McCulloch, who purchased 3,500 acres of lakeside property along Pittsburgh Point, the peninsula that eventually would be transformed into “the island”. The property had originally been purchased from the Santa Fe Railroad, by World War II veterans.
       In 1963, on the courthouse steps of Kingman, Arizona,  McCulloch purchased a 26 square mile parcel of barren desert, that would become the site for Lake Havasu City.  At the time it was the largest single tract of state land ever sold in Arizona, and the cost per acre was under $75.
       McCulloch Properties, Inc., a subsidiary of McCulloch Oil, was the division that developed Lake Havasu City. One of the first steps was to purchase Holly Development, in 1964, to utilize their licensed real estate force.
       McCulloch had purchased 11 Lockheed Electras, and formed McCulloch International Airlines, to fly in prospective buyers from all over the country. Splashy magazine ads enticed snow-weary would be customers to take a free flight to Paradise.  When they arrived, they were greeted by one of the Holly salesmen, who taxied them around in the trademark white Jeep.  In all, there were 40 identical vehicles in the fleet, said to be the largest contingent of white Jeeps in the world.
       Lake Havasu Hotel was built to accommodate the prospective buyers, during their stay. Located on McCulloch Boulevard, the only paved street in the beginning, the hotel was an oasis, offering a spectacular view of the lake. It was surrounded by lush greenery while a dramatic waterfall fell from its roof.  One entrance to the hotel sported an impressive line of towering palm trees, and it was the site for the local high school’s first Junior Senior Prom, in 1969. The hotel was leveled in 1988, and the site is now the location for Lake Havasu City’s Civic Center.
       To spur the growth of the infant city, in 1964 McCulloch opened a chainsaw manufacturing plant in the new community. Within two years there were three manufacturing plants, with some 400 employees.       Yet, it was the purchase of the London Bridge, in 1968, that gave worldwide exposure to the development. McCulloch was searching for a unique attraction for his city, which eventually took him to London.
       For over 2000 years a bridge had spanned the River Thames, beginning with the first recorded mention of a pontoon bridge in the first century. Another bridge was mentioned during King Edgar’s reign, between 959-975 AD. It was that bridge which eventually fell, around 1014 AD, that may have inspired the familiar nursery rhyme. 
       According to legend, London was attacked by Danish pirates, who seized the bridge and hurled spears and rocks to those below.  Viking chieftain Olaf Haralsen came to the locals’ aid when he and his men rowed up to the bridge’s pilings with their covered longships, fastened ropes to the bridge and literally pulled it down, as the Vikings rowed furiously, bringing the Dane’s down into the river.
       The first stone bridge was built on the site in 1176, designed by Peter Colechurch. This bridge took 33 years to construct and lasted for 600 years. Some visitors to the London Bridge in Arizona expect to see Colehurch’s bridge, which has been depicted in various mediums.  Over the years houses and shops had been built on the bridge, along with a drawbridge and waterwheels to help pump water into the city.
       But changes over time, along with fires and other disasters, altered the 600 year old structure, and eventually it was replaced with another London Bridge, in 1831.  That bridge, designed by John Rennie, would eventually move 7000 miles, some 140 years later.
       By the early 1960’s it was apparent that the well traveled bridge was gradually sinking into the River Thames.  It was decided that a new bridge would need to be built, to accommodate the estimated 10,000 vehicles and 100,000 pedestrians, that used it on a daily basis. But rather than razing the Rennie bridge, it was decided to put the historical landmark on the auction block.
       When casting his bid for the London Bridge, McCulloch doubled the estimated cost of dismantling the structure, which was 1.2 million dollars, bringing the price to 2,400,000. He then added on $60,000, a thousand dollars for each year of his age at the time he estimated the bridge would be raised in Arizona. His sentimental gesture earned him the winning bid, and in 1968 he was the new owner of the London Bridge.
       It took three years to complete the project. The structure was dismantled brick by brick, with each section marked and numbered, in much the same way Rennie had originally built it.  The granite pieces were stacked at the Surrey Commercial Docks, and then were shipped through the Panama Canal, to Long Beach California.  From Long Beach the granite blocks were trucked inland 300 miles.
       At first, many of the early Lake Havasu residents did not take seriously the story of McCulloch buying the London Bridge, believing it to be some outrageous rumor.  But then the story was confirmed, and they watched in amazement as the historical pieces of granite piled up at a nearby Havasu worksite. 
       Even more amazing, was watching the transformation of the peninsula into an island, as a mile-long bridge channel was dredged, giving purpose to the transplanted landmark. Included with the bridge purchase, were the unique lampposts, molded from French cannons captured during the 1815 battle of Waterloo.
       The London Bridge was officially opened on October 10, 1971, with a gala celebration. Opening day included an elaborate fanfare; spectacular fireworks, a parade, entertainment, dramatic release of hundreds of balloons and white doves, colorful hot air balloon landings, and celebrities, such as Bonanza fame Loran Greene, and dignitaries such as the Lord Mayor of London.
       Nestled beneath the north arches of the bridge the English Village was constructed, its striking similarity to Disneyland, with its colorful exterior, immaculate grounds and vibrant flowers could be credited to C.V.Wood’s input. That spring the new English Village, hosted the local high school’s third Junior Senior Prom, just as the Havasu Hotel had done  three years prior.
       With the purchase of the London Bridge, McCulloch accelerated his development campaign, increasing the amounts of flights into the city.  At the time, the airport was located on the island.  The free flights to Lake Havasu lasted until 1978, and reportedly they totaled 2,702 flights, bringing in 137,000 prospective buyers.
       Yet even before the bridge gave national exposure to the new community, the first Havasu residents were lured into the area, in the early-sixties, by McCulloch’s dream.  Some of those early residents lived for a time in tents, or made do with kerosene lighting and primitive living conditions, much like their pioneer ancestors had done.
       In 1963 Lake Havasu City did not qualify for incorporation under state law, and so it became a recognized Irrigation and Drainage District (IDD).  The IDD’s Board of Directors acted as city councilmen, in order to run the infant city. In the early seventies they took steps towards incorporation by instigating a feasibility study. And by the end of the decade it was finally incorporated, in 1978, one year after Robert McCulloch’s death.  Incorporation was made possible with a new state law that enabled a new municipality to organize as a city and to assume trusteeship of bonded debts and a Sanitary District. It also took a vote of the people, which came in 71% in favor of incorporation. 
        McCulloch’s diverse interests continued into the last years of his life. In 1971, the same year the London Bridge officially opened,  he built his first aircraft in Lake Havasu City.  It was the J-2 Gyroplane, a hybrid combination of helicopter and airplane, and was tested by NASA pilot James Patton, in the summer of 1973. His dream was to offer “an airplane in every garage”, promoting a seemingly simple aircraft that was easy to fly and could take off from a driveway.  Although he manufactured about 200 of the aircraft, the market never materialized.
       Perhaps his vision for an airplane in every garage never became a reality, the same can’t be said for his remarkable dream for a city in the Arizona desert, a far more dramatic and seemingly unattainable goal.  Today Lake Havasu City is a vibrant, prosperous community that continues to attract new residents from all over the country, and the world.



Where the Road Ends, Havasu Palms Recipes & Remembrances

More than a souvenir, or an addition to your cookbook collection – Where the Road Ends tells the story of the oldest resort on Lake Havasu. With over eighty-five, never before published photographs – beginning in the 1930’s – this book tells the story of the miners and pioneers who developed Road’s End Camp, now known as Havasu Palms.

t is the remarkable account of Havasu Palms’ major force for three decades – Walt Johnson – who created a remote paradise in spite of broken government promises and betrayal. It is the tale of a modern day pioneer family and those who came before them.

Where the Road Ends, Havasu Palms Recipes and Remembrances
also contains over 150 favorite recipes donated by the people who have themselves added flavor and character to the place . . . where the road ends.

By Bobbi Ann Johnson Holmes
Published by Robeth Publishing
Copyright © 1995


Birth of a
Havasu Man

by Bobbi Ann Johnson Holmes
Excerpt from Where the Road Ends

       The year was 1966. The USA was involved with an unpopular war in Vietnam. The country was struggling with civil rights, and man had not yet reached the moon. In spite of a growing population of flower children, anti-war protests, and political marches, families continued to dream and move forward.
      One of these was my own. My father, Walter Clint Johnson, was a general contractor. My mother, Caroline Glandon Johnson, was the traditional homemaker, seeking no career for herself outside of our family.
       As an independent general contractor, Walt began specializing in commercial buildings. It proved to be a smart move, as the housing industry in Southern California declined in the late sixties. Even more fortunate, was the business relationship he forged with Winchell's Donut House, which kept him busy building one donut house after another.
       In the late sixties our family took several water ski trips to Lake Havasu. We'd previously enjoyed numerous holidays at the river along the Parker Strip. Long time friends. Gene and Margaret Mushinskie suggested our family try Havasu. We camped across the bay from the Nautical Inn, at a beach where the channel now cuts to make way for the London Bridge.
       My mother's eldest brother, Ken Glandon, told us of a campground, Havasu Palms, for sale along the California side of Lake Havasu. From a vehicle's prospective, Havasu Palms, California in 1966 was a world away from Lake Havasu City, Arizona. There was no highway in those days which connected the southern end of the city to the Parker Strip. Unless you traveled via water, a voyager needed to commute through Twentynine Palms and Needles California, in order to reach Lake Havasu City from Parker.
       Havasu Palms, Inc., originally named Road's End Camp, is located some 12 miles north of Parker Dam, California. Today, as it was in 1966, the last eight miles of road is dirt, winding through the rugged, yet picturesque, Whipple Wash.
       We discovered a quaint fishing camp, littered with unsightly shacks, a dilapidated general store, pieced together with weathered boards and planks. Rickety wooden boat slips dotted the shoreline, while an enormous array of debris - tires, old cars, engines, rusted tools, reels of wire - lined the roads of Havasu Palms, leading from the store to camp. It offered a modest trailer park with approximately 20 pads (several were occupied) and limited camping facilities.
       The then owners of Havasu Palms had a lease with the Bureau of Land Management, which ran to 1984. The leasehold included over four miles of shoreline, which bordered on the alleged Chemehuevi Indian Reservation. On this neighboring piece of property a small dirt airstrip was situated.
       Walt looked beyond the tool shack, which sported an array of disgusting dried up fish heads, and the lack of telephone service, no television, and the fact that the nearest town was Parker - 28 miles away. Instead he saw the incredible sunsets over clear blue water, a retreat for fishermen, water skiers and boat enthusiasts. He saw an adventure with limitless possibilities.
       When first negotiating the purchase of Havasu Palms, Walt asked the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) if there was ever the possibility the lease land could be added to the neighboring Chemehuevi Indian Reservation. He'd heard stories of unhappy business leases along the river on reservation properties. The BLM assured Walt that such an occurrence was impossible, because the shoreline was located on a public reservoir, and as such could not be part of the reservation.
       Accepting the verbal assurance, Wait, along with two other business partners, bought Havasu Palms in 1967. (The lease land was added to the Chemehuevi Reservation in 1974.)
       Although Walt's accountant thought he was crazy to leave his successful construction business, Walt convinced his wife, Caroline, and two daughters, Lynn (age 17) and Bobbi (age 13), to leave the security of home for parts unknown.
       Not only were Walt and Caroline the major shareholders of Havasu Palms, they would be its general managers for the next 22 years. In January of 1968 the Johnson family moved into an old trailer, installed a mobile phone in their truck, and discovered life without television, or neighbors.
       The BLM assured Walt that if he hired a professional architect to develop an acceptable master plan of Havasu Palms, and if he realigned a portion of the access road into the resort, a, long term lease would be forthcoming. Walt met the demands of the BLM, yet lease negations stalled, for unbeknown to Havasu Palms, the Department of Interior was making plans to transfer the lease land to the Chemehuevi Reservation.
       Without a long-term lease there could be no development loan. Armed with ambition, creativity, perseverance, hard work, humor, and the assistance of family and friends, Walt became the Havasu man and captured his dream, in spite of un-kept government promises and endless challenges.


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