Spanish explorers moved through Southern Nevada in the early 1800s, discovering and naming Las Vegas as a stop on their way to California. Mormon missionaries established a settlement and built a fort in 1855 in Las Vegas but didn't stay long. In the latter half of the century, Las Vegas, and with it the area that is now Henderson, was detached from Arizona territory to become part of Nevada. Small farming communities developed, but things were quiet in the area until construction on the Boulder Dam was begun in 1931, bringing thousands to the area for work.
Southern Nevada had but a handful of residents in the early decades of the twentieth century. Henderson, quite literally, was created almost overnight in 1941, as building began on a plant that was, at the time, a massive undertaking in the middle of desert land. Magnesium and its importance in munitions and to the brewing war were the key to the city's beginning.
In 1941 a Cleveland, Ohio manufacturer named Howard Eells and his newly formed Basic Magnesium Inc. (BMI) company signed a contract with the U.S. Defense Plant Corp. to build the Basic Magnesium Plant. Only days after signing, the government asked Eells to expand the planned site to 10 times its original size, making it 1.75 miles long and .75 miles wide, the largest such magnesium plant in the world. More than 13,000 workers—which was 10 percent of the entire state's population at the time—lived in ramshackle housing or "tent cities" until construction began on a company town in 1942. Under scrutiny for attempting to profit from the war, Eells sold BMI to Anaconda Copper Mining Co. that year. Anaconda was charged with finishing the plant, and the burgeoning city was named not after Eells, but for former senator Charles P. Henderson for his role in helping to get the plant financed and built.
For the next few years, BMI exceeded its planned production rates and employees numbered 14,000 at peak production. However, by 1947 magnesium was no longer needed for defense, the plant closed, and more than half of the employees left. Almost as quickly as the city was built, it all but disappeared. Henderson stood in danger of becoming a ghost town, and in 1947 the U.S. War Asset Administration offered the entire city for sale as war surplus property. In a brochure created to help sell the city, a description was provided that outlined the housing, streets, alleys, sanitary systems, schools, general buildings, shops, churches, and other city amenities.
In an effort to save Henderson, the Chamber of Commerce convinced the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce to issue an invitation to the entire Nevada Legislature to come visit Boulder Dam (now Hoover Dam). They were asked to evaluate the Basic Magnesium site and explore the possibility of construction of a power generator at the dam, which would bring new workers and provide work for those Henderson residents that remained. The plan worked—a bill was unanimously approved, giving the Colorado River Commission of Nevada authority to purchase the plant. By 1953 signs of improvement were well underway and the city was officially incorporated, with a population of 7,410 residents.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Henderson remained a relatively small factory town. In the early 1980s, the first master planned community, Green Valley, was plotted. Henderson's population in 1980 was 24,363; by 1990 it had more than doubled, and by the end of the twentieth century Henderson had reached 175,381. Local estimates project the 2010 population will reach 310,000 as a steady stream of new residents and businesses continue to be attracted to the area. By 1999 Henderson overtook Reno as Nevada's second largest city.
The city celebrated its 50 year birthday in 2003. Henderson's unparalleled growth in the past two decades shows little signs of slowing. It's no wonder that Nevada's second largest city, with a thriving economy, master-planned communities, world-class recreation, and proximity to several of the country's national and man-made treasures, is one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation.
Historical Information: City of Henderson, City Hall, 240 Water Street, Henderson, NV 89009. Nevada State Museum & Historical Society, 700 Twin Lakes Drive, Las Vegas, NV 89107; telephone (702)486-5205