How an Old Bridge and an Artificial Geyser Created Two Arizona Towns: The Genius of Lorne Pratt
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
By Douglas Towne
There were no textbooks on land development in Arizona when Lorne Pratt was tasked with marketing two new communities in the late 1960s. It was a challenging task, even with the state's enviable surplus of sunshine and recent improvements in air-conditioning technology.
Arizona has long been a fertile landscape for real estate fraud. Unscrupulous developers subdivided remote properties and marketed them to unsuspecting out-of-state buyers. But the advertised street and utility improvements and a viable water source were often only a desert mirage.
Lorne Pratt beat back Arizona’s dubious real estate reputation when he began marketing his first development in the state. He and his partners, C.V. Wood and Robert McCulloch Sr., wanted to develop around Lake Havasu. In 1967, the city was home to 1,000 residents and a chainsaw manufacturing factory but they needed a good marketing plan. The story begins one late night in 1967 when the trio was watching the Johnny Carson Show. They listened as Carson joked that the City of London was selling a historic bridge.
“The gang kind of laughed and kidded around saying they should put it over that barren land they owned between Arizona and California, where they tested McCulloch outboard boat motors [on Lake Havasu, formed by the Parker Dam on the Colorado River in 1938],” says Phoenix radio personality Dave Pratt, the son of Lorne Pratt. “After a few more drinks, they said, ‘What the hell, let’s do it!’” The result was that the development would never lack publicity.
Dave Pratt recalls that it was a big deal when his dad, Wood, and McCulloch were developing Lake Havasu. “All the kids at my school were constantly asking me about the London Bridge and what it was like,” he says. “Dad gave me fragments of the bridge that had chipped off during transportation to hand out to all my friends. It was fun!”
He adds that the Pratt family home had a two-story fireplace made from stones from the London Bridge. “My dad sent my entire family and our cousins over to see England and other cities in Europe,” he says. “I remember meeting the Lord Mayor of London and many other dignitaries. To me, it all seemed kind of normal. But, again, I was just a kid. It was all that I knew.”
According to his son, Lorne Pratt's group paid about $2.46 million for the bridge, and the ensuing publicity was amazing. “It was one of the best marketing strategies in history, and the transportation of the bridge alone created thousands of news stories,” he says. “It still creates headlines today!”
London Bridge remains the most popular “constructed” tourist destination in Arizona. The 190-year-old, 1,005-foot-long, five-arch structure, which first carried traffic over the River Thames in 1831, was due for replacement and put up for sale. In 1968, Pratt's group hired Sundt Construction to travel to London and take the bridge apart, piece-by-piece. The 10,276 granite blocks were labeled according to the span, row number, and the position of the stone in that row. The 22 million tons of granite blocks were shipped to Long Beach and transported overland to Lake Havasu. The bridge has many interesting features, including strafing scars from bullets fired during World War II visible on some of the blocks.
Bridge reconstruction, also performed by Sundt, took three years at its new home. The bridge linked western Arizona to Pittsburg Point, underneath which the Bridgepoint Canal Channel was excavated on Lake Havasu. The reconstructed bridge had a steel-reinforced concrete core that was hollow, which allowed for a lighter yet stronger structure. The 130,000-ton bridge in London weighed only 33,000 tons in Arizona.
“Lake Havasu was a big inexpensive property, which in those days was pretty much in the middle of nowhere,” Dave Pratt says. “Totally undeveloped. Imagine taking nothing but dirt and turning it into a city! It took lots of vision and lots of money, and it couldn’t have been easy.”
Lake Havasu was more than a resort community, though. McCulloch moved his small engine manufacturing business for chainsaws and outboard motors from Los Angeles to Lake Havasu to provide an economic base for the development. He had initially moved from Milwaukee to Los Angeles in 1946. At the time, the company was the world's largest manufacturer of chain saws and was in third place as a producer of outboard motors.
Pratt, Wood, and McCulloch also did some business with the enigmatic Howard Hughes, purchasing airplanes from him and his Hughes Air West company. "They would fly qualifying people to Arizona for free from the Midwest and the East to buy property at their new developments in the desert," Dave Pratt says. "They felt Arizona's sunshine was an easy sell, and they were right."
Lorne Pratt bought the majority of McCulloch’s real estate development holdings in Lake Havasu in 1977, under Pratt Properties Inc. He then hired another Disneyland developer, Charles Thompson, to plan an English-themed commercial area at Lake Havasu, including a museum of English royalty and arts and crafts shops. The project ultimately created the English Village south of the London Bridge, including the London Bridge Resort and Convention Center.
The trio’s next magic act in Arizona involved a fountain. Lorne Pratt had a big idea to combat the mindset of waterless desert developments. "I remember him telling me over ice cream at the Sugar Bowl [restaurant] on Scottsdale Road that he would build the tallest fountain in the world, right in the middle of the desert," Dave Pratt says. "And he did."
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Jul/Aug 2022 issue, Vol. 11, No. 4.