HOW A CHAINSAW BOUGHT A BRIDGE

Just a boy from Missouri

Robert Paxton McCulloch
Robert Paxton McCulloch

Robert McCulloch was just your average country boy from St. Louis, Missouri.  Average being a relative term of course.    A Stanford graduate, he was married to the daughter of Briggs and Stratton co-founder Stephen Briggs.  You might know that name.  They probably made your lawnmower engine.  They’ve been making them since 1908.

 

 

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That’s not to say that Robert McCulloch needed his wife’s inheritance to make ends meet.  Not at all.  When he was fourteen years old, and living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Robert, along with his brother and sister, inherited the 20 million dollar fortune left to them by their maternal grandfather, John Beggs, in 1925.  That’s over one billion dollars at today’s rate.

 

 

Who was John Beggs and why do we care?

 

 

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John Irvin Beggs, President, Milwaukee Electric Railway Company

 

Like most desert rats, you might not know the name of John Beggs.  On this I beg to differ (sorry, bad pun).  John Beggs was a good friend of another inventor of the era, one Thomas Alva Edison.  After Edison brought electricity to the world, Beggs brought electric trolleys to Milwaukee, and much more.  Beggs didn’t invent electricity, but he electrified the world around him.

 

Rebel Blue Blood

 

 

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Brief side-note:  McCulloch’s paternal grandfather was also Robert McCulloch.  ‘Confederate’ Captain Robert McCulloch, in fact.  He was wounded while leading troops under the command of General Pickett at Gettysburg in 1863. 

 

That’s thee General Pickett of Pickett’s Charge fame.  Captain McCulloch returned to Missouri after the war, and rose to be vice president of a local cable car company.  He died a few years after his grandson was born.

 

McCULLOCH SUPERCHARGES HIS LIFE.

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While he could have lived comfortably off his wife’s money and his own inheritance,  Robert McCulloch had bigger ideas.  He started a business.  Several businesses, in fact.   McCulloch Motors, McCulloch Aircraft, McCulloch Oil, Paxton Automotive, his own airline and a little bit of property along the way.

 

In the 1940s, McCulloch sold his first engineering company to Borg-Warner for a million dollars (over 15 million today). He built superchargers and racing engines at the time, and Borg Warner wanted them.  Naturally, this allowed McCulloch to move on to his next project, so let’s cut to the chase.

 

 

LONG BEFORE THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE MOVIE, THERE WAS A CHAINSAW.

 

 

 

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It was one invention in particular that made Robert McCulloch a household name.  Enter McCulloch Chainsaws of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  You just might know that name too. 

 

McCulloch made the chainsaw industry what it is today.  They’re still around, too, though now owned by the Swedish giant, Husqvarna.

 

So, you might say that it was a chainsaw that made the man, and the man made a city.

 

 

 FOR SALE: DIRT WITH A VIEW

 

Open desert surrounds Lake Havasu in the early 1960s.  A bargain at $75.00 an acre.

 

Besides his other ventures, McCulloch had a long abiding love of boat racing, and building boat engines.  He needed a place to test his products, and Lake Havasu was available.

 

By 1963, Robert McCulloch moved his businesses to Arizona and bought 26 acres of land right next to Lake Havasu.   He paid a little over a million dollars for the place, and Lake Havasu City was born.  He even opened a chainsaw factory that employed several hundred workers.  After all, every city needs a population.

 

So then, when you’re at the top of your game, and you own your own city, what do you do next?   A multi-million ton antique to decorate the place might be nice.  “Tonne,” if you’re British, actually.

 

 

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

 

 

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, the British had problems of their own.  Their current edition of the London Bridge was sinking by about an inch a year into the soft sand of the Thames River, and would sooner or later fall down.  Imagine that.  London’s bridge, falling down.  Again.

 

 

bridge sign

 

 

It wouldn’t be the first time the empire needed a bridge makeover.  The old children’s nursery rhyme, “London Bridge is Falling down, falling down” grew out of the fate of an earlier bridge or two.  Sometimes, location is everything.

 

 

YOU DIDN’T BUILD THAT. 

THE ROMANS BUILT THAT.

 

 

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A worker watches in the 1820s as the new bridge takes shape, and the old bridge, on the left, waits for her day of judgment.  Okay, so this isn’t exactly a Roman, but he was probably related to one.

 

 

The fact is, there have been bridges spanning the Thames River in London since the days of the Roman Empire, when the place was still called Londinium.  Almost 2000 years’ worth of bridges, and now the latest one needed to go, and go soon.  But who would be foolish enough take it?  An American, that’s who!

 

A BRIDGE NEEDS A HOME,

AND A HOME NEEDS A BRIDGE.

 

London Bridge, once upon a time.
London Bridge, 1831 edition.

 

The newest old London Bridge, built in 1831, had withstood the trials of two world wars, Jack the Ripper, and not a little political intrigue over the years, but her time was up.

 

 

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The lights of London, blacked out during the Battle of Britain, 1940, with the London Bridge in the foreground.

 

THE BRITISH INVASION OF 1968

 

 

When Robert McCulloch found out that the British were willing to sell their bridge in the late 1960s, he had to have it.   A 130-plus year old bridge was just what his new city needed.  Some European elegance, and a way to span the distance from the lake shore to that island.   

 

 

 island

 

Truth in advertising:

 

There was never really an island in Lake Havasu until Robert McCulloch made one.  When you own the real estate, and you have a few million dollars, you can pretty much do what you want, and he did.   Just a little dredging for a few years and, viola’, “Fantasy Island” in the sand.  So, just how did that bridge end up so far away from home?

 

 

BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME.

 

 

McCulloch paid a little more than 2 million dollars for the London Bridge.  There were few bidders so it was a done deal from the beginning.   By 1967, the bridge was his, and the move was on.  By the time it arrived at Lake Havasu City, the total cost, including purchase price and assembly was more than ten million dollars.   The bridge, in fact, cost twice as much as the land that makes up Lake Havasu City, where it now resides.  The rest was the cost of transportation and assembly.

 

 

A DESERT MAGIC KINGDOM? 

IT IS A SMALL WORLD AFTER ALL.

 

 

The bridge, and the little bit of England came with it, was reassembled by an engineer named Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood.  It was complete by 1971.   If some of the architecture in the English Village under the London Bridge looks familiar to you, then you have likely been to Disneyland.  C. V.  Wood built them both.    Sadly, after seeing his dream come to life out of the desert sand, Robert McCulloch passed away in 1977 at the age of 66.

 

 

London Bridge, Lake Havasu 2015
London Bridge, Lake Havasu 2015

 

So, there’s a little bit of history and trivia for you.  If you visit Lake Havasu City, and you should, then you really need to see the bridge.  In fact, we don’t know how you can miss it.   Stand there and admire its beauty. 

 

Let your mind wander and you might see Jack the Ripper making his way along the base of the bridge on a foggy London night, or hear the sound air raid sirens signaling the approach of enemy aircraft in the early days of World War Two. 

 

Also, in memory of Robert Paxton McCulloch, listen for the sound of a chainsaw.

 

 

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While you’re at it, take a close look over the sides of the bridge (try not to fall in).  You can still see bullet holes in the brickwork, the result of British and German fighters engaged in aerial combat during the Battle of Britain in 1940.  Fifty-six days of constant attacks on London, and the London Bridge stood through it all.  She still stands today.  

 

History lives here.

 

 

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I enjoyed showing the London Bridge to my sister, Dawn, visiting from Maryland. It was Dawn’s first visit to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, and she loved it. Not to mention, we rocked the fabulous hats we bought at the English Village Shoppes.

 

 

dawn

 

 

My personal connection to this story: 

 

In the summer of 1971, before my senior year in high school, my friend Richard, his girlfriend, Carla, and I paddled a kayak across Lake Havasu, and I can still remember seeing this great big bridge, standing alone in the very hot desert.

 

Note: I don’t recommend paddling a kayak across a desert lake on a hot August day, but when I was seventeen, it seemed like a good idea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jaylyn

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comments
  • Many thanks for this excellent blog post about our great city and its founder! I shared it on our Facebook page @lakehavasucityarizona.

  • There are but a few professional race car drivers that haven’t also been effected by an off shot of the McCulloch chain saws, the McCulloch kart engines that were the dominate kart race engine from the mid-50s, well through to the mid ’80s, as karts were the starting point for many pro drivers. In the early ’60s.
    The McCulloch chainsaw division was the driving force behind all modern high performance two-cycle engines, and are responsible for many SAE technical letters about two-cycle development.
    When Yamaha first brought race motorcycles to Daytona for Bike Week, they were out run by European 4-cycle bikes of the time.
    Some of the Japanese engineers that attended that first attempt happened to go to a local kart race, and were amazed at the performance of the McCulloch engines. They bought several, took them back to Japan to study, and when Yamaha returned to Daytona the following year, not only won the race, but continued to do so for many years to come, thus ending the rein of the Euro 4-stroke engines.
    McCulloch also made complete race karts, that are much prized today by collectors.
    When the chain saw division was sold off to another company in the late ’70s (after McCulloch’s passing?) the new owners discontinued the kart engine line.
    Today his kart engines bring high prices on eBay. An engine that retailed for $100 in the mid-60s, will bring upwards of $1200 if in excellent or new condition.

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