Walking around Water Street and throughout downtown Henderson, Valerie La Porta-Haynes can see clearly everything it used to be. Once the home to townsite houses, the paved multiple-lane road - sidewalks included - encompasses businesses and city of Henderson offices.
La Porta-Haynes, born and raised in Henderson, and Rick Watson, who moved to town when he was 6, were present as the area grew from the unpaved stretch of dirt it was when they once walked it.
They, along with dozens of people who grew from the city's beginning, did more than just watch history happen in Henderson. They made history as Henderson transformed from the tucked-away no-man's land that people turned their nose at to the second-largest city in Nevada with more than a quarter-million people who call it home.
"I always knew this was the best-kept secret," La Porta-Haynes said.
The Basic townsite was created in 1941 to house workers from Basic Magnesium Inc., which produced magnesium to create a better bomb during World War II.
Water Street, the first main street in Henderson, was named for the water main under the street feeding the BMI plant.
Streets with the names Gold, Nickel, Zinc and Platinum - all materials that aided in the production at the plant - began to surround the area.
In 1946, Watson's family drove its 1929 Cadillac from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in a two-day trip.
The first few months, they lived in Las Vegas off Fifth Street before heading to the townsite just in time for first grade.
"I just remember we were minutes away from vast stretches of desert," Watson said.
Watson lived in Carver Park, the racially segregated housing designated for African American workers. Even though it was designed for black workers, white families were allowed to move into the development.
Watson attended the school inside the development while he lived there three years.
"The school in Carver Park was like what we see with portable classrooms today," Watson said. "They were three or four steps off the ground with swamp coolers."
In the winter, Watson said the classroom smelled like diesel fuel from the kerosene stoves used to keep the children warm.
While living there, Watson heard rumblings that the townsite, which people started referring to as Henderson, might be dissolved since the war was over and magnesium was no longer needed.
The War Assets Administration was discussing selling the site as war surplus. But after many efforts, mainly by the town's namesake, Sen. Charles B. Henderson, the site was spared.
The population, 3,000 to 5,000 by Watson's recollection, began to shrink.
Original town homes were sold as people began to leave.
Watson's family moved to an original townsite home after Carver Park.
"We wanted to be closer to downtown," Watson said.
In 1952, his parents built their own house, where his mother still lives.
Henderson was incorporated in 1953.
Its first mayor, James French, and city council members - N.D. Van Wagenen, John Ivary, Bill Engel, Paul Dickover and Lou La Porta - were sworn in May 27, 1953, at the former police station, 134 W. Atlantic St. The building is still around.
Councilman LaPorta's daughter was born at St. Rose de Lima in the 1950s.
"I never really knew (he was a councilman)," LaPorta-Haynes said. "I just knew both my parents were really involved in the community."
La Porta-Haynes lived on Magnesium Street until she moved to Church Street near Boulder Highway and Water Street.
"It seemed so far away at the time," she said. "But when you are little, everything seems so much farther."
La Porta-Haynes was often on Water Street, skating or strolling down the dusty road in her black and white saddle shoes.
She would visit the library at 55 S. Water St., Rexall Drugs, the Cake Box or a number of other businesses in the area.
Walking down Water Street, La Porta-Haynes still recalls everything from where each store was, the people she was with and even seeing the movie "The Fly" at the Victory Theater.
"I couldn't swat a fly for a week," she said.
La Porta-Haynes even remembers the smell, whether it was the malodorous chlorine from the nearby chemical plant or the sweet intoxication of the pastries of the Cake Box.
Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen, who was born a year after incorporation in 1954 at the Boulder City Hospital, has some of the same memories. Sitting in his office in City Hall, 200 S. Water St., overlooking the Water Street District, Hafen can see remnants of what used to be.
As time went on, La Porta-Haynes remembered Water Street as the epicenter for high schoolers, both from Basic and Bishop Gorman high schools.
"This was our main drag," La Porta-Haynes said. "We knew who was coming around the corner by the sound of their motor."
La Porta-Haynes and Watson attended Bishop Gorman.
Whether it was by hitchhiking or carpooling, Watson attended high school miles away from Henderson.
He graduated in 1958.
After attending what is now Sewell Elementary, Hafen went to Basic High School. His was the last class to attend the old Basic High School before it moved to its current location on Palo Verde Drive.
Even after high school, many longtime residents stayed close.
Hafen said his friends would always talk about leaving, but in the end many were too in love with the city.
Watson initially left Henderson for a year for Santa Fe, N.M.
"But then I came back," he said.
Back in his parents' Henderson home, he made nearly the same trek attending the University of Nevada, Las Vegas as he did with high school.
Hafen, who also went to UNLV and went on to work for the Metropolitan Police Department, marveled at the growth that began to happen.
"It is interesting to see us grow from a small town," he said. "People would always refer to us as Hooterville."
La Porta-Haynes also remained close to the Henderson area.
"There was no way I would move out of this state," she said. "It was just a great place to live."
La Porta-Haynes bought her first house in the 1980s off Sunset Road. It was designated Las Vegas at the time.
"But not two weeks later, I got a letter talking about the master planning," she said.
The proposed expansion was the development of the Green Valley master- planned community and led to tremendous population growth.
"I was lucky to be a part of that growth," La Porta-Haynes said. "I could never have thought how large it could have grown. Look what another 20 years could do."
Hafen was elected to his first office, city councilman of Ward 2, in 1987.
"The population was less than 50,000," he said.
By the time he was elected, the focused council decided its goals were to exceed 50,000 residents and become one of the largest cities in the state.
As much as they all remember the good things about Henderson, no one forgets where they were during one of the city's biggest, and scariest events.
The explosion at the Pacific Engineering & Production Company of Nevada May 4, 1988, had rattled many houses, as well as nerves, throughout Henderson and beyond.
All but two of the 108 employees on duty at the facility during the time of the explosion escaped. Shock waves made their way through the city, causing damage to homes, school buildings and cars.
Watson was across town when he heard a clap of thunder - or what resembled thunder.
Hafen was working downtown at Metropolitan Police headquarters when he saw a pillar of smoke covering the skies toward the east.
La Porta-Haynes was working at McCarran International Airport.
Leaving work, no one knew the damage they were coming back to.
"For some reason, my wife left the sliding door cracked open," Hafen said.
That crack, to Hafen's best explanation, alleviated pressure when the shock wave hit the house. Only the front door had been blown off. The glass windows, unlike those in many other houses, were intact.
Miles away, La Porta-Haynes' home had been rocked by the blast.
Many of the townsite homes, built to last and endure, were rattled with minimal damage despite being so close to the explosion.
Despite damage, La Porta-Haynes said the thing about the event that stayed with her wasn't necessarily the destruction but the way the community rallied around each other.
Henderson carried on and continued expanding.
One change was the creation of the Las Vegas Beltway, offering multiple exits to Henderson. The initial project began in 1992 and was completed in 1995. The project continued to grow, stretching toward Henderson in 1997.
"I remember the day the 215 opened, and it was already at capacity," Hafen said.
The beltway continued Henderson's growth, pushing Eastern Avenue, Green Valley Parkway and various other streets farther and farther, which led to the creation of Anthem, Sun City Anthem, Seven Hills and other master-planned communities in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
By 1996, the estimated population was 138,000 people.
Watson, who was living in Las Vegas, retired in 1997 and moved back to the growing population of Henderson, which had stretched beyond imagination.
"It was awe-inspiring to see how quickly everything changed," he said.
Hafen said U.S. Highway 95 expanded as well, aiding in the growth.
The two highways were connected in 2002 with the Henderson Spaghetti Bowl.
La Porta-Haynes eventually sold her home to move back closer to Water Street.
Often she will take the short walk - each step flooding her with memories - from her house to the Elayne LaPorta Gallery, her mother's, which she runs.
Even though many of the original homes are still near the Water Street District, the area has changed. Where homes used to be businesses are now more prevalent.
City Hall, the Henderson Convention Center, the Henderson Events Plaza and the Henderson Justice Facility, along with dozens of small businesses, make up the Water Street District, where Henderson began. Henderson has come a long way from its start. It now has an estimated 270,000 residents.
"No one ever thought we would be a quarter of a million people," Hafen said.
In an area where hotels are imploded, Henderson has managed to keep much of its story alive through historic societies, historical designations but more so through the stories of its residents who carry on their memories into the next generation.
Contact Henderson/Anthem View reporter Michael Lyle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-5201.