Henderson Historical Society Stories


Pepcon explosion, 25 years later

Pepcon_smokeArticle by Fredric Watson

The City of Henderson is about to commemorate the 25th anniversary of a tragic episode in its history.  An industrial accident that reminds long-time residents of the recent disaster in West, Texas.  The PEPCON explosion was such a traumatizing experience that those who lived through it will never forget where they were the morning of May 4, 1988.  The Henderson Historical Society is attempting to capture the memories of those who lived through that frightful morning and its aftermath in the hopes that the costly lessons of our history are not soon forgotten.  For Henderson newcomers and the children who have been born since 1988, a short history lesson is in order:

The city now known as Henderson began as a WWII era Defense Plant Corporation project to produce magnesium, a material that was vital to the U. S. and its allies as the United States was drawn into the war in Europe.  The Government and its contractor, Basic Magnesium Incorporated (BMI), built a production plant in 1941, brought water and power from Lake Mead and Hoover Dam and constructed housing necessary for the nearly 15,000 employees who would be needed to refine magnesium.   By July 1943, less than one year after production started, BMI became the world’s largest producer of magnesium.  Late in 1944 the plant began to scale back production as the war drew toward its end.  BMI reduced the work force and many families returned to their pre-war homes.  However, a good number of families chose to stay and they began to advocate for preserving their town.  The State of Nevada heard them and averted the dismantling of their community as had been the plan of the War Assets Administration.   Provisions were made for residents to purchase the homes that were rented to wartime workers and the BMI Plants, and after much effort over the next nine years the valuable assets of the area attracted new companies including U. S. Lime, American Potash, Timet, Kerr-MacGee, and Pacific Engineering (later merging with American Pacific Corporation).  Along the way the community that housed, supplied and met the needs of the BMI workers was incorporated into a town.  A mayor and town council were elected and the new town of Henderson became an official entity.

In the 1960s, as the United States began to experience success in its space exploration program and as the cold war competition led the Defense Department to develop rocket propelled weaponry, solid fuels became an important commodity.  By the 1980s Pacific Engineering Company of Nevada (PEPCON) was one of only two American producers of ammonium perchlorate, an oxidizer used in solid fuel rocket boosters, including the Space Shuttle and military weapons.  In 1986 the Challenger space shuttle exploded in mid-flight and NASA put the program on hold until it could correct flaws that caused the disaster.  However, production of ammonium perchlorate was allowed to continue at PEPCON.   Though supplies grew, there was no government plan for PEPCON regarding where to ship the product, and no required storage procedure nor proper storage facilities for such large quantities (approximately 4,500 tons) of the product.




Three Kids Mine

Three Kids Mine

Manganese One Plant (AKA) Three Kids Mine, Henderson Nevada, 1916-1962

Manganese One Plant (AKA) Three Kids Mine

Henderson, Nevada, 1916-1962

The Manganese Ore (AKA) Three Kids Mine has a battle born history from 1917-1961. The mine and mill sites had three periods of activity each related to a time of war and internal tensions (WWI, WWII, and  the Korean and Cold War years).

While manganese is used in tough alloys, resistant to wear, manganese production of sufficient quality required the construction of the new mill and corresponded to the period of high demand in WWII and during the cold war era. In 1961 most of the rich ore was depleted and the U.S. Government contracts were terminated.  The mine and mill was dismantled and closed in 1962.

What do remember of the Three Kids Mine? Let us know by posting your comments below.


Magnesium Maggie

The original Bombshell. A Magnesium Maggie hard at work at the BMI plant, circa 1940.

Most people have heard of Rosie the Riveter, but on a local level, Southern Nevada had its own version of hard-working, wartime women known as “Magnesium Maggies.” The term was coined by researcher and former war worker herself, Irene Rostine. Ms. Rostine’s work is focused on the role of women in Southern Nevada’s magnesium war industry. With the largest group working at the Basic Magnesium Plant in Henderson, women drove forklifts, handled ingots, were full-fledged machinists, and worked over molten metal. Find more about Magnesium Maggie here:

Magnesium Maggie: Ready to do the Job

Were you or someone in your family a Magnesium Maggie at the BMI plant? If so, we want to know. Tell us your story! It’s worth it’s weight in gold…or magnesium.


Architect Paul Revere Williams

Paul R. Williams and the Design of the Basic Townsite

Image: HERALD EXAMINER COLLECTION/Los Angeles Public Library

At the peak of its production, BMI had 13,618 workers on-site, dwarfing the 5,250 employed on the Boulder Dam project. At one time, it is estimated that nearly 10% of the total population of Nevada worked at BMI during the plant’s construction and use. At its peak, BMI’s weekly payroll was greater than the monthly payroll at the nearby Hoover Dam.

In 1941, world-renowned architect, Paul R. Williams was commissioned to design a housing development of 1,000 homes for the growing BMI work force, most of whom were living in canvas tents.  Famous for his work with wealthy clients, Williams was known as the “Architect to the Hollywood stars.” Yet Williams had a practical side and he brought his vision to the design of what was known as the Basic Townsite.  Envisioning homes that were comfortable, functional and defined by his love of California flavor, the Basic Townsite was conceived as a company town.

While Williams himself was African-American, the Basic Townsite he designed was closed to the thousands of African Americans who worked at the plant or in local support industries. It is not known whether the issue of segregation was ever brought up in the design phase.  High labor turnover, substandard working conditions at the plant, chlorine gas in the air, and an atmosphere that was not conducive to family life resulted in workers looking for alternative housing and ultimately, the project was never fully occupied.

Williams continued to have a thriving career as an architect and designed over 3,000 buildings, served on many municipal, state and federal commissions, was active in political and social organizations and earned the admiration and respect of his peers.  He was the first African American elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

If you would like to learn more about visit the Paul Revere Williams website.