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
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
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
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
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
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
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.