A century ago, Elko got its first U.S. senator… but his impact also was big in southern Nevada.
On Christmas Eve 2017, Francis Newlands died. He had been in Congress for almost twenty-five years and a nationally known figure. He had first won a Senate seat in 1903. It was clear that a Democrat would replace the Democratic Newlands, since that was the political party of the governor, Emmet Boyle. He would get to make the appointment.
As you might imagine, Boyle heard from a lot of Democrats—even from then-small Clark County. Apparently, one of those seeking the post was Charles Lee Horsey—a Democrat, former Lincoln County district attorney, Clark County legislator, and then district judge; later, he served on the state supreme court.
But Boyle chose Elko businessman and politician Charles Belknap Henderson, a loyal Democrat steeped in Nevada’s past. Henderson had moved to Elko when he was two. His grandfather was Governor Lewis Bradley, an Elko rancher. Henderson was named for his uncle Charles Belknap, a state supreme court justice. Henderson attended school in Elko, went to college out of state, and came home to practice law. He served as district attorney and legislator, and for a decade as university regent. He invested in banking and ranching.
His Senate career would be brief. Because he had been appointed at the beginning of 1918, he had to run that November to finish the last two years of Newlands’s term. He had a well-known Republican opponent, Edwin E. Roberts, trying to move up from the House of Representatives. A major third-party candidate jumped in: Anne Martin, a leader of the women’s suffrage effort in Nevada. We’ll have more on her in a future broadcast. Henderson still won comparatively easily, with nearly forty-eight percent of the vote, with Roberts at about thirty-one and Martin at eighteen.
Henderson served on the mining committee, representing Nevada’s interests. But he would have to run for his own six-year term in 1920. Martin ran again, and this time the Republican was Tasker Oddie, a former governor and frequent candidate. Oddie enjoyed strong support from Nevada political boss George Wingfield. Martin may have split off some of the old Progressive vote from Henderson. It certainly didn’t help Henderson that it was a Republican year. Oddie won with forty-two percent of the vote to Henderson’s thirty-eight, with Martin carrying the rest. To add insult and, literally, injury, a fellow lawyer shot Henderson in the arm the day after his Senate term ended. The attorney had been angry about a case for twenty-five years.
Henderson was fine, but he was not done with public service. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt named him to the board of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Seven years later, Henderson became chairman. In that position, he helped direct loans and funding to many businesses. Most crucially, the RFC aided Basic Magnesium with construction of its plant southeast of Las Vegas in 1941. When it came time to name the town, it was in honor of a Nevadan who had helped. Henderson retired from the RFC board in 1947 and died in 1954, a year after the city that bears his name was officially incorporated. From Elko to Henderson, Charles Belknap Henderson played a role in Nevada’s history that deserves to be remembered.
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