The city he started was named for somebody else, and other folks ended up running the industry he brought to Nevada. Far from spreading the welcome mat, one of Nevada's senators demanded that Congress investigate him.
But Howard Eells endured it all, and Henderson exists because he did. Now the third largest city in Nevada, Henderson is also one of the youngest. Most people born the same year as Henderson, 1941, aren't even retired yet.
Eells, of Cleveland, inherited his father's manufacturing business in 1919. At the time the company made only flux for blast furnaces, but Eells expanded into a wide range of products. In the 1930s he made firebrick, used to line furnaces and fireplaces. And in 1939 he sent geologists into the mountains of Nye County looking for heat-resistant materials.
They found or acquired deposits of magnesite and brucite containing more than 70 million tons of good ore -- the largest deposit ever found.
Hitler's invasion of Poland reminded Eells his ore had other uses. German dive bombers could turn on a dime because of lightweight magnesium components. German paratroopers had a huge advantage over other infantry, for they were able to carry their own artillery -- lightweight 25mm cannon made of magnesium.
Magnesium was the key component of bright-burning tracer bullets, essential to accurate machine gun fire. It was the key component of incendiary bombs and of the flares used to light battlefields or signal rescue craft. Yet the United States had been caught napping; little was made in this country. And through patents, Dow Chemical Co. and Alcoa monopolized even this.
Eells tracked down Maj. John P. Ball, who had bought production patents from a German company shortly after World War I and founded a company to produce magnesium in England. Ball would provide the know-how to make the light metal in America.
Getting plans for a magnesium factory would not prove easy. Dispatched to America in six large crates, accompanied by two of Balls' employees, the first set of plans went down when the ship was torpedoed. Both escorts were rescued. A second set of plans was microfilmed and dispatched by airplane, while the waterlogged escorts boarded a different plane as a decoy. Both airplanes got through.
Meanwhile, Eells searched the country for financing and friends.
He found the friends in Nevada Sens. Key Pittman and Patrick McCarran. It helped that Charles P. Henderson, a former U.S. senator from Nevada, was chairman of the Reconstruction Finance Corp., a federal agency that financed businesses including defense plants. They considered locating the factory near the magnesite deposits, at Gabbs, but the site lacked both water and electrical power. Making magnesium requires plenty of both.
They eventually settled on a site about halfway between the generating facilities of Hoover Dam and the railroads at Las Vegas.
On July 5, 1941, the U.S. Defense Plant Corp. signed an agreement with Eells' newly formed Basic Magnesium Inc. to build the plant. With war looming, the federal government was to own all buildings, land, equipment and magnesium produced. It controlled sales and production quotas, and it paid the workers. But BMI managed the operation and recruited, hired and fired them.
A few days after the contract was signed, the government asked Eells to build a plant 10 times the size originally contemplated. It would be a mile and three quarters long and three quarters of a mile wide, the largest magnesium plant in the world.
The scale of the construction staggers imagination even today. The BMI newsletter, appropriately named "The Big Job," commented on July 30, 1942:
"It detracts nothing from the splendor of the Boulder (Dam) accomplishment to point out that the big job at Basic is of even more gigantic proportions.
"At the peak of employment the dam project had 5,250 at work. Last week the employment count on the Basic job was 13,618. The weekly payroll at this project is greater than the monthly payroll at the dam. Anderson's (the company which contracted to feed workers) had a mess hall at the dam that seated 1,300. Anderson's here can serve 2,500 at a sitting."
More than 13,000 workers constituted 10 percent of Nevada's population, and that didn't even include the number building a second plant at Gabbs to partially refine ore, reducing the weight by half before shipping it.
Eells wanted to house workers in Boulder City, which was originally built to house dam workers. But the Bureau of Reclamation, which still ran Boulder City, said it couldn't handle so many. Eells started talking about building housing near the plant.
Construction began on Feb. 17, 1942. As a concession to Las Vegas interests, the houses were built on wood foundations so they could easily be moved after the war. Some were moved, but many remain today, their temporary foundations long since replaced with concrete. .
Eells sold BMI and its management contract to Anaconda Copper Mining Co. in 1942.
Despite work that was brutally hot and hard, and created serious turnover problems, BMI under Anaconda management broke both production and safety records.
So hard did the war workers toil that by July 1943 the plant was producing magnesium at 10 percent greater than its rated capacity. So much did they make that in November 1944, with fighting still raging in Europe and the Pacific, the federal government decided it needed no more magnesium. Basic Magnesium was ordered to suspend production. Within a few days, the production lines closed down and workers were dismissed. .
Eells died in 1978, at the age of 85.
Howard Eells son of Howard Eells by Frank Mill Pond Gratke
Pages on Frank Mill Pond Gratke site
No one connects Howard Eells maker of the steam shovels for the Panama Canal to his son Howard Eells a production hero of World War II.The father and son lived in South MIlwauke until 1911.