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Monday, July 31, 2006

A New London Bridge Opens, August 1, 1831

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Today in 1831, the New London Bridge opened, spanning the River Thames in London, England. The granite structure, 928 feet in length, represents just one chapter in a history of structures collectively known as "London Bridge". As we begin it's important to note that London Bridge is not be confused with Tower Bridge, a bridge that was built downstream of London Bridge and completed in 1894. Many tourists see the more massive Tower Bridge and think it is the other.

The spot where London Bridge crosses the Thames has been home to one type of bridge or another for nearly two millennium. The original bridge was a wooden structure built during the first century AD by the Romans. It likely fell into disrepair after the Romans left the island several hundred years later, but at some point it was either renovated or replaced by one or multiple bridges. During the 11th century, the bridge was burned in an attempt to slow the advance of Danish invaders. According to legend, this incident was immortalized in the nursery rhyme London Bridge is Falling Down.

Two more wooden bridges were built on the same location during the 11th and 12th centuries, but both were destroyed by weather or fire. It was only then that the proposal was put forth to build a larger stone bridge across the river. This endeavor was undertaken during the reign of Henry II and took 33 years to complete. It opened in 1209.

King John, who was the ruling monarch at the time of the bridge's completion, proposed that houses be built on the structure. This was undertaken almost immediately and, before long, the span was covered with houses, stores and a chapel located on top of the center span. Although exact details have been lost to history, drawings of the time show buildings up to seven stories high covering the bridge. The population of the structure was so large that it was made a separate ward of London with its own representative on the city council.

London Bridge served its namesake for over 600 years. During that time, parts of the span collapsed and were rebuilt and various structures on top of it were purposely burned or accidently set on fire. During Jack Cade's rebellion in 1450, a battle was actually fought on the bridge. The southern gate of the bridge became notorious for being the place where the severed heads of traitors were put on display. William Wallace was the first person to suffer such a fate; hundreds of others would follow over the next three and a half centuries, until King Charles II put a halt to the practice in 1660. In 1633, a fire destroyed the northern end of the bridge, which was not immediately rebuilt. Because of this delay, the bridge remained free of damage from the Great Fire of 1666.

By the dawning of the 19th century, it was clear that London Bridge was in need of replacement. Traffic was so bad that London's Mayor issued an edict in 1722 ordering all horses and carts to be driven on the left side of the road from the perspective of the rider. It is believed that this is where the British tradition of driving on the left began, although it is possible that right-handed people wanted to have their weapons close to oncoming traffic in case of an incident.

A competition was held in 1799 to determine the best design for a new bridge. The winner was John Rennie, whose design included five stone arches. It was built 100 feet upstream of the old bridge and took seven years to complete. After the New London Bridge opened today in 1831, the old one was demolished.

The new bridge underwent various renovations over the next 130 years, including a widening in the first decade of the 20th century. The extra traffic brought on by automobiles caused the bridge to begin sinking into the river mud until the east side of the bridge was four inches lower than the west side. Construction on the current London Bridge began in 1967 and the span was opened in 1973. Part of the cost of the construction was offset by the sale of the old bridge to Robert McCulloch, an American businessman. McCulloch had some of the bridge transported to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where the stones were used to cover a concrete framework. The finished product, opened in 1971, looks much like the original bridge, but much of the actual structure never left England.

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