The Nevada Traveler: Henderson’s industrial roots

There’s nothing basic about the story of Henderson, the state’s second largest city. Founded in 1942, Henderson, which was originally named Basic, traces its beginnings to 1939, when Ohio businessman Howard Eells obtained the mineral rights to large magnesium deposits near Gabbs.

Eells knew magnesium was an essential element in making lightweight metals and incendiary bombs, so with war on the horizon, he saw magnesium’s potential value. Later, working with Nevada Sen. Patrick McCarran and others, he opened a magnesium processing plant south of Las Vegas in 1942.

The plant, known as the Basic Magnesium Inc. (BMI), quickly grew to become the largest of its type in the country, employing more than 15,000 people. To house those workers, a company town, which was initially named after the plant, soon cropped up around the massive industrial facility.

In 1944, the community, which now included churches, shops, schools and other amenities, gained a post office, which was named after former Nevada Sen. Charles B. Henderson, who, as director of the government’s Reconstruction Finance Corp. had provided the federal funds used to build the plant.

In 1945, with the war effort beginning to wind down, the federal government halted all magnesium production and the community faced an uncertain future. Many of the workers began to move away and by 1947, Henderson was practically a ghost town, with hundreds of vacant homes and a school district that had lost two-thirds of its students.

In response, the state of Nevada sought ways to revive the community. In 1948, the state of Nevada approved legislation allowing the Colorado River Commission of Nevada to purchase the plant and townsite from the federal government. The move allowed the facilities to be leased and sold to private companies and citizens.

Gradually, Henderson came back — boosted in the early 1950s when the plant once again began producing material needed during the Korean War. In 1953, the community officially incorporated as the City of Henderson.

In 1988, the facilities of one of the companies operating at the plant site, Pacific Engineering and Production Company of Nevada (PEPCON), which manufactured rocket fuel, caught on fire. The conflagration ignited tremendous explosions that destroyed many of the facility buildings, killed two people and injured 372.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Henderson started to move away from heavy industry to other types of businesses. Today, much of the former plant site has become warehouses and office buildings, and the community has become a residential sister community for Las Vegas with major planned developments such as Green Valley, Anthem, Green Valley Ranch and Tuscany Village.

The community has also taken steps to revitalize its downtown core area, known as the Water Street District (https://waterstreetdistrict.com/).

Perhaps the best place to learn about Henderson’s fascinating history is the Henderson Historical Society (http://hendersonhistoricalsociety.org/) and the Clark County Museum in Henderson (www.clarkcountynv.gov/government/departments/parks___recreation/cultural_division/musuems/clark_county_museum.php).

Additionally, the City of Henderson has produced an informative brochure, which can be downloaded at https://cityofhenderson.com/redevelopment/henderson-historic-walking-tour.

Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.

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