LAKE HAVASU CITY, AZ - From his office window, real estate broker Lyle Matzdorff gaped at the semi trucks trekking back and forth along U.S. Highway 95, lugging granite blocks used to recreate the famed London Bridge in what was then a small Colorado River town.
"You say, ‘The London Bridge is going to be right there,'" Matzdorff said. "It's hard to fathom."
But block by block, and to the wonder of many, 22 million pounds of granite transported 10,000 miles from the River Thames became part of the bridge spanning a man-made channel on Lake Havasu.
Forty years later, London Bridge, purchased by this city's founder as an elaborate business venture to boost land sales, attracts thousands of visitors and is the centerpiece of a community that boasts more than 50,000 residents.
"The London Bridge put Lake Havasu City on the map," Mayor Mark Nexsen said.
Founder and entrepreneur Robert McCulloch purchased the 26 square miles of land in 1963 to use as a test site for his outboard boat motor business, and five years later he purchased the bridge for $2.46 million when the city of London put it up for auction.
"You always hear the old jokes, you know, ‘I've got a bridge I can sell you,'" Nexsen said. "Well, he bought it."
The city is now celebrating the anniversary of London Bridge's October 1971 dedication with a reenactment of the sale, construction and dedication of the bridge, as well as a display of 11 bloodied mannequin heads, a nod to London's medieval practice of beheading those who committed crimes against the crown.
Judy Whelan, a Lake Havasu City Historical Society board member directing the anniversary celebration, said the bridge promotes tourism, which in turn boosts sales at area businesses.
"Tourists started flooding in as soon as they heard that the bridge was over here," Whelan said. "And it hasn't really stopped."
As many as 68,000 visitors have traveled to the city so far this year, according to the Lake Havasu City Convention and Visitors Bureau, making the London Bridge one of the biggest tourist attractions in the state.
Below the 952-foot-long bridge is a replica English village, complete with a visitor center, pubs and bright red English phone booths. Tourists can also find several restaurants and the London Bridge Resort nearby.
Whelan said McCulloch's gimmick to raise the town's visibility and to increase property sales was very effective.
"As soon as the publicity went out that McCulloch had bought the London Bridge and was going to move it to Arizona, lot sales quadrupled."
The original bridge, completed in 1831, was one of a number of London bridges dating back almost 2,000 years. The city decided to replace it because the heavy granite construction and the increasing traffic caused the structure to sink an inch every eight years.
Lake Havasu City's version features the original masonry over a concrete base.
It was reconstructed on dry land next to the lake. McCulloch later had a channel dug beneath it, creating an island.
Mark Clark, the director of the city's Department of Public Works, said as many as 12,000 cars cross the bridge's three lanes daily, and nearly 20,000 on holidays.
Clark, who as a boy saw the bridge's construction, said the unusual attraction provided the city with an instant identity.
"It gave this community a focus point," he said. "It gave this community a place to gather."
London Bridge facts:
• Purchased by Lake Havasu City founder Robert McCulloch for $2.46 million in 1968.
• Granite masonry shipped 10,000 miles through the Panama Canal to Long Beach, Calif.
• Original bridge was 1,005 feet long; Lake Havasu City's bridge is 952 feet long.
• Consists of five arches initially built over sand molds; a channel was dug later.
• Reconstruction took three years and cost $5.1 million, including relocation and reassembly.
London Bridge Days:
The celebration of London Bridge's 40th anniversary in Lake Havasu City lasts from Oct. 13-29. It includes a rededication ceremony, a London Bridge Parade, a concert and a fair.