Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


GREAT CITIES ARE established on rivers: London’s Thames, Paris’s Seine, Vienna’s Danube, St. Petersburg’s Neva, Prague’s Vltava; the list goes on. Rivers encourage commerce and development. But they also offer impediment and require means to cross. A photo of London Bridge at the time of Sherlock Holmes got me thinking about this, with subsequent gleaning for tidbits from a variety of sources.

Extremely busy traffic on London Bridge, c. 1890. Image from Sherlock Holmes’s London, 1980.]

London Bridge Origins. A London bridge in song and legend (as in “falling down”) has crossed the Thames since the earliest times. As Wikipedia notes, “There is  archaeological evidence for scattered Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age settlement nearby, but until a bridge was built there, London did not exist…. The first bridge was probably a Roman military pontoon type. Around AD 50, the temporary bridge over the Thames was replaced by a permanent timber piled bridge, guarded by a small  garrison.” Thus grew the town of Londinium. 

Rivers Can Make Borders Too. By the early fifth century and the end of Roman rule, London Bridge had fallen into disrepair. Instead, the river provided a boundary between hostile kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex. Bridges were built and destroyed during this period, with William I rebuilding one following the Norman Conquest in 1066. His was destroyed by the London tornado of 1091. 

The Nursery Rhyme Bridge. “Old” London Bridge, the nursery rhyme one, crossed the Thames from 1209 to 1831. It had 19 piers and arches along its 926-ft. length. Narrow passages, defined by “starlings” surrounding the piers, restricted tidal action to as much as 6-ft. differences in river depth on either side of the bridge. An adage at the time suggested the bridge was “for wise men to pass over, and for fools to pass under.”

Drawing of London Bridge from a 1682 panorama, with the starlings in good view.

London Bridge was alive with houses and shops along its length; these, paying for its maintenance. Typical of its early times, spiked heads of executed criminals were posted at the Southwark gatehouse, seen in the right foreground of this drawing.

“New” London Bridge, 1831–1967. Wikipedia notes, “In 1799, a competition was opened to design a replacement for the medieval bridge. The bridge was eventually built 100 ft. west (upstream) of the old one; this, to permit the latter’s use during construction. The new London Bridge officially opened on August 1, 1831, with King William IV and Queen Adelaide attending a banquet on a pavilion erected on the structure. 

“In 1896,” Wikipedia says, “the bridge was the busiest point in London, and one of the most congested; [see the 1890 photo.] 8000 pedestrians and 900 vehicles crossed every hour.”

“Falling Down” to Arizona. Wikipedia quotes Common Council of the City of London member Ivan Luckin, who said, “They all thought I was completely crazy when I suggested we should sell London Bridge when it needed replacing.” And, in 1968, the City of London did just that: Missourian entrepreneur Robert P. McCulloch, Sr.,  bought London Bridge for $2,460,000. Figure around $19 million in 2021 dollars. 

London Bridge, Lake Havasu City, Arizona. Image by AP Photo/Courtesy of Lake Havasu City Convention and Visitors Bureau from Arizona Capitol Times.

This reconstructed London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, now crosses the Bridgewater Channel of the Colorado River. 

Indeed, little cities as well as great ones are established on rivers. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021


  1. Jack Albrecht
    April 22, 2021

    The fact that Napolean could not cross the Danube saved Vienna and helped give Napolean his first personal defeat in Europe. The book “The Battle” is a great story told from the French perspective (and recommended by a French friend of mine).

  2. simanaitissays
    April 22, 2021

    Thanks, Jack, for this. It reminds me of Napoleon’s Russian defeat. This time, it was the Danube. Not a Russian winter.
    Do you know Nick Thorpe’s wonderful Danube book?

    • Jack Albrecht
      April 23, 2021

      No, I don’t know that book. Looks very interesting. Thanks for the tip! I’ll return the favor. If you don’t know it, the book, “Thunder at Twilight” by Frederic Morton is an excellent book to understand Vienna and Austria just prior to WWI.

      It is amazing how many well-known 20th century people were here, and how many of the places they were you can still walk by or visit (or could before Covid).

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