We know little about what happened in this area before people from Europe and the United States arrived. There was a Native American trail that forked here and the Natives burned prairies each year to insure that there would be fresh vegetation the next. Artifacts have been found in the area, but there is no evidence of permanent settlements.
The old trail was later utilized by Hudson’s Bay Company trappers and traders and was the main route from Fort Vancouver on the Columbia to Fort Nisqually on Puget Sound. The first two settlers in what is now Tenino were Stephen Hodgon and Samuel Davenport and their Donation Land Claims took up most of what is now Tenino. Other settlers also took up claims in the area which became known as Coal Bank. The first school was established in 1865, and the 1870 census recorded a population of 170 in the Coal Bank area.
In 1872 the Northern Pacific Railroad reached the area and established a station named Tenino. Although there are stories about a railroad engine numbered 1090 and a 10-90 survey stake, the name is more likely a word meaning fork or junction from an Indian jargon. Tenino was the western terminus of that railroad for about a year when financial difficulties halted construction. A hotel and store were constructed on either side of the Tenino depot and the town began to develop.
The first plat of a town of Tenino was done in 1873. Also in that year the Northern Pacific completed its line to Tacoma bypassing Olympia. Olympians were so disappointed at being off the railroad line that in 1878 they completed a narrow gauge rail line to Tenino to connect to the main line.
Tenino Quarry – 1890’s
In 1888 sandstone deposits were discovered around Tenino and the first stone was shipped the following year ( also the year Washington became a state). By that time there were also a number of sizeable logging operations in the area.
Tenino sandstone became well known and was used in building – churches, depots, libraries, homes – all over the Pacific Northwest and in California. It was also used in monuments representing our State in the national Capitol. Tenino is still known and recognized for it’s sandstone.Many of the buildings have endured to the present. Locally, buildings of Tenino sandstone can be seen on the towns main street. New buildings that are built today have still incorporated sandstone in their building projects to fit the landscape.
The first public school in Tenino was opened in 1890 and a telephone switchboard and lines were installed in 1905. In 1906 the residents voted to incorporate as the Town of Tenino and its newly elected council enacted speed limits of eight miles per hour for horses and six miles per hour for motorcars and motorcycles. The same year a local business man bought a generator and brought Tenino its first electricity, Ezra Meeker placed a monument marking a point on the old Oregon Trail with most of the town there to mark the occasion.
The teens and twenties of the twentieth century saw the decline of the sandstone quarries of Tenino as concrete became a popular and economical building material for large building projects. Keeping the economy going was a continuing and busy timber business. Logging camps and mills provided jobs for local workers for many years and are still important, although on a more limited basis as logging practices have changed.
By 1930 Tenino was a thriving community of almost 1,000 with businesses that served south Thurston County. Like the entire nation the town was hit hard by the Great Depression; The local bank failed and Tenino achieved fame when the Chamber of Commerce issued scrip and wooden money in an attempt to keep local commerce functioning. The wooden money is a collectors’ item today.
In the 1940’s a powder plant that some fifty years later would become a part of an international firm was built on a site north of Tenino.
In 1954 Interstate 5 was opened west of Tenino and the town was taken of the beaten track. Since the opening of I-5 the town has successfully entrapped people with its charm and friendliness.
In 1968 the first Oregon Trail Days celebration was held and in 1970 the Lions Club sponsored its first annual Old Time Music Festival. Both have become traditional events over the years. In 1975 the last railroad depot to serve the Town was moved to the city park to serve as a museum and has been a special attraction since that time preserving the history of Tenino and its people.
In the 1980’s a new fire station was built, a new winery opened in the Skookumchuck Valley, and a citizens’ Task Force organized to accomplish improvements in the town’s park and pool. Among its projects was a waterfall at the swimming pool and an enlarged playfield with a concession and storage building.
Tenino’s development has continued into the current decade with the purchase of a state of the art medical van, the reopening of a local sandstone quarry, establishment of transit service between Olympia and the South County area, and the expansion of local businesses and the opening of new ones to serve our growing area.