Tenino -- Thumbnail History

  • By Patrick Marshall
  • Posted 12/23/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10991
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The community that would become Tenino, located in Thurston County, was founded in 1851 when Stephen Hodgden (1807-1882) filed a claim under the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850. In 1872 the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived, giving the local economy a major boost by enabling local timber and especially sandstone to be transported to market. By the time the city of Tenino was incorporated in 1906, sandstone quarries were anchoring the economy. But almost as soon as the city was incorporated, a series of major economic challenges arose. Most significantly, new building materials resulted in collapsing markets for sandstone. The Great Depression of the 1930s also took a toll on the already struggling local economy. In recent decades the city has found new life as a bedroom community for those working in nearby Olympia and Tacoma.

Early Days

The first non-Indian settler occupied the land that would become Tenino in 1851, when Stephen Hodgden filed a claim under the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850. Hodgden left Maine in 1849 to seek his fortune in the California gold rush. When his prospecting efforts fell short of his hopes, he looked north for land to homestead. 

The Donation Land Claim Act was enacted specifically to encourage such settlement in the Pacific Northwest. The law granted 320 acres of land to every single white male citizen, and 640 acres to married couples arriving in the territory before December 1, 1850. Mixed-race Native Americans were also eligible for land claims. Those who arrived after the deadline but before 1854 were granted half that acreage. To gain title, settlers had to live on the land and cultivate it for four years. 

Indians, whose people had lived in the region for generations, supported neither the land grants nor the increasing presence of settlers. The resulting tensions induced settlers in the area to build forts for protection in the event of an attack. Close to the region that was to become Tenino, settlers built Fort Henness in 1855 on the Grand Mound Prairie. 

By various estimates, 23 to 30 families, amounting to more than 300 people, lived for as long as 16 months in the 100-foot-by-130-foot stockade. In the end, according to one researcher, "the Tenino area suffered only one casualty in the Indian War, William Northcraft, killed while hauling supplies for the militia" (Dwelley, 4). 

"After the Indian scare was over, emigrants once more began to swarm into the area," writes Art Dwelley, former editor of the Tenino Independent newspaper (Dwelley,  5). 

The area got its first post office on April 17, 1860, with Hodgden named postmaster. The postal designation was "Coal Bank," a name apparently derived from a nearby ledge of coal. The locality was referred to as "Hodgden's Station."


It wasn't until the railroad came to the area in 1872 that it finally received the name it has today. "On October 8, 1872, at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, the final spike on this section of the Northern Pacific was driven into place," writes Dwelley. "The station was named 'Tenino,' and the seed of the town began to grow" (Dwelley, 6).

While historians agree that it was J. W. Sprague (1817-1894), head of the Northern Pacific Railroad who named the end of the line Tenino, it is not clear where he got the name. "Some folks contend that Sprague got the name from a survey stake, numbered T-9-0 or 10-90 on the original railroad survey. Others say it was the equipment number of the first locomotive used on the line," writes Scott McArthur, regional historian and former journalist. "Best bet is that Tenino was named for the Columbia River tribe that had no connection to the Tenino of today" (McArthur, 142). 

Lumber and Coal 

The arrival of the railroad spurred Tenino's economy. Before the railroad, the primary activity was subsistence farming on what was essentially prairie land. But the hills around the town were heavily forested. "The coming of the railroad brought a means of turning the huge trees into money," writes McArthur. "Trees were harvested, cut into merchantable boards and beams and shipped to ready markets. By the turn of the century, there were several mills in the area" (McArthur, 39).

Coal was another resource that could be effectively exploited once the railroad was available to transport it. In fact, the railroads were the primary consumer of the coal in the region. There was at least one coal mine in the area as early as 1874 and at least two mines in the early 1900s.

But the quality of the coal was low and the costs of extracting it were relatively high. "The mines operated with difficulty and produced low-grade soft coal," writes McArthur. "Both had problems with flooding from the high underground water table, which the pumps had difficulty clearing from the mines" (McArthur, 43).

By 1877, thanks largely to the railroad, Tenino had grown in population to 75. It had two general stores, a hotel, two blacksmiths, a telegraph office, and a freight office (Dwelley, 7).

Stone City

For reasons of geography and resources, Tenino was never likely to become a metropolis. But in the first half of the twentieth century it played a significant role in the state's economic development. 

The resource that made Tenino important was its sandstone. And, of course, the sandstone would have been of little value if the railroad was not there to transport it to building projects throughout the state. 

Tenino's first spurt of growth began in the late 1880s, with the opening of two stone quarries. "But the real boom began with the establishment in 1903 of the Hercules Sandstone's Quarry No. 1 west of town and the start of commercial coal mining activities south of town," writes McArthur (McArthur,  13). In 1907, Tenino's population was 300; by 1910 it had reached 1,000. In 1915, the Hercules Sandstone Co. by itself employed 400 people. 

"This was a boom period for Tenino and quarrying, logging, milling, and mining operations provided a steady payroll for the bustling community," writes Dwelley (Dwelley,  8). Newspaper reporters in nearby Olympia gave Tenino the nickname "Stone City" (McArthur, 20).

The early 1900s was also a period of rapid modernization. Tenino's first telephone system was installed in 1905 and its first electric light plant was opened in 1906. 

Incorporation and Development

It was during this period of rapid growth that residents voted -- 76 to 36 -- to incorporate the town. This was officially accomplished on July 24, 1906. Henry Keithahn (1869-1947), owner of a local creamery, was elected as the city's first mayor.

McArthur, whose father and grandfather were involved in Tenino politics, writes that Tenino's town government was always a low-budget operation. "Initially, Tenino financed its municipal operations with a $500 annual tax on saloons (there were six of them at the time) and $3 a day license fee on vendors of 'medicines, drugs and nostrums'" (McArthur, 20).  

McArthur also notes that Tenino politics was not very democratic at the time. "Dad said that William McArthur and some of the acknowledged leaders of the town would get together before each election to decide who ought to run for the town council," he writes. "That was in the days before the Australian, or secret, ballot" (McArthur, 121). 

By 1909, the new city was home to three sawmills, two stone quarries, two coal mines, a creamery, and several manufacturing companies. "The mercantile establishments include two general stores, a grocery, drug store, jewelry store, three dry goods stores, two hardware and furniture stores, meat market, millinery store, with blacksmith and repair shops to take care of the work in this line," noted a journalist profiling the city in 1909 (The Ranch, p. 3). 

The Big Blast

The sandstone quarries, apart from providing employment, were also the occasion of one of Tenino's major media events in 1912. 

"What probably was the biggest single blast ever discharged in the United States took place at the Hercules quarry at Tenino this afternoon, when more than 500,000 tons of sandstone were broken up by a single charge of 50,000 pounds of black powder and dynamite," wrote a reporter for The Seattle Daily Times ("Half Million Tons of Rock Broken Up ..."). 

The reason for the blast was to break up sandstone for a government-constructed jetty in Grays Harbor.

Putting Hope in Oil

Entrepreneurial spirits were also raised by the prospect of oil revenues. On November 24, 1914, a crowd estimated at 15,000 people gathered to watch workers uncap a well drilled by the Crescent Oil Co.

"The well immediately commenced to give forth high quality oil at a rate variously estimated from one hundred to one thousand barrels a day," wrote Seattle Daily Times reporter J. J. Underwood. "Regardless of stock jobbing, wildcat companies and all the evils that surround the initial production of oil in new fields, it is now practically certain that oil in commercial quality and quantity exists in the Tenino field, and probably exists in widely scattered localities of Western Washington" (Underwood, p. 1). 

Years of Challenge 

The explosion at the sandstone quarry, although celebrated at the time, could be seen in retrospect as a turning point in Tenino's fortunes. To begin with, the Grays Harbor jetty, which was the reason for the explosion, was cancelled. Even had the jetty project not been cancelled, the quarries' boom days would soon be over. Other building materials -- brick, concrete, and especially steel -- were increasingly being used in the construction of new buildings. 

"Evidence of the demise of the cut stone industry was the decision of the Tenino School Board in 1924 to build its new high school out of brick because it was cheaper than Tenino sandstone," notes McArthur (McArthur, 36).

The oil boom did not continue booming as residents had hoped it would. The Crescent Oil well never produced much oil after all, and further exploratory drillings produced neither sufficient oil nor enough promise of it to attract further investment.

"Following World War I, Tenino's economic boom ended and the population dropped by several hundred," writes Dwelley. "Sandstone was no longer in great demand and the quarries slowly went out of existence. Logging and farming became the main occupations of the area and Tenino once more was mainly just a trading center for the south county" (Dwelley, 10).

Tenino's Great Depression

As if things were not bad enough, Tenino, along with the rest of the country, was sorely tested by the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Citizens Bank of Tenino closed its doors in December 1931.

But thanks to the ingenuity of a few of the city's leaders, one of the city's attempts to respond to the economic challenges resulted in national and even international attention.  

With the collapse of the local bank, Don Major (1896-1966), a member of the city council and publisher of the Tenino Independent newspaper, proposed that the city issue scrip. What Tenino did differently from others was to print scrip on wood. By Major's own account, the first batch of wooden bills were flimsy sheets of "slice wood" made from spruce or cedar that had been cut to 1/80th of an inch thick. "Later the slices were sandwiched with a paper in between," wrote Major. "One issue of a thousand even carried a 'watermark' reading 'Confidence makes good; Money made of wood,' which could be seen by holding it up to the light. This was supported to guard against counterfeiting" (Major). 

In all, $10,308 of wooden money was printed. Only $40 of that amount was ever redeemed. That's because the wooden bills immediately become a collector's item.

According to an Associate Press report on March 2, 1932, "Tenino's wooden money soared above par today, doubling in value. When the only bank of Tenino failed several weeks ago the Chamber of Commerce issued scrip printed on thin wood, such as used for strawberry boxes, in denominations of 25 and 50 cents and $1. The wooden money was accepted in Tenino at its face value, but today Tenino residents were asking $1 in United States silver or currency for their wooden fifty-cent pieces and getting it because of the great demand for the money from coin collectors" (The New York Times).  

Eventually, demand for the wooden money went national and even international. "Demand for Tenino's unique wooden money came from around the world," wrote McArthur. "Contemporary accounts indicate would-be collectors included King Farouk of Egypt and Benito Mussolini, dictator of Italy" (McArthur, 18).

Tenino Today

"Through the 1940s and 1950s Tenino's main claim to fame or infamy was a certain notoriety for being a 'speed trap' on the old Pacific Highway," writes Dwelley (Dwelley, 11)

As of the 2010 census, the city's population had reached 1,697. The city's growth rate has exceeded that of the state as a whole in recent years, thanks largely to its attractiveness as a bedroom community for those working in nearby Olympia and Tacoma.

The city offers a park close to downtown with a quarry pool, a historic downtown with sandstone architecture, and the Depot Museum. 

Sources: Scott McArthur, Tenino, Washington: The Decades of Boom and Bust (Monmouth, Oregon: Scott McArthur, 2005); Art Dwelley, Tenino, The First 100 Years: A Brief History (Tenino: The Tenino Centennial Commission, 1971); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Residents of Skookumchuck (later Centralia) begin building Fort Henness on October 17, 1855," (By Jennifer Ott), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed November 26, 2014); "Tenino, The City and Her Famous Quarries," The Ranch, May 15, 1909, p. 3; "Half Million Tons of Rock Broken Up by Single Explosion," The Seattle Daily Times, February 18, 1912, p. 1; J. J. Underwood, "Big Mob Sees Cap Removed: 15 Thousand Persons Present at Tenino When Washington Is Placed on Map as Oil-Producing State," The Seattle Daily Times, November 24, 1914, p. 1; Don Major, "The History of Tenino Wooden Money," Tenino Depot Museum website accessed November 26, 2014 (http://teninodepotmuseum.org/wooden_money_5.html); "Wooden Money Is Doubled in Value as Collectors' Prize," The New York Times, March 3, 1932, p. 21; City of Tenino website accessed December 21, 2014 (http://www.ci.tenino.wa.us).

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