The first settler on the site of Tenino was Stephen Hodgdon, A native of Maine who had come west in 1849 with the California gold rush. Failing to strike it rich, he came north in 1851 and took up a donation land claim on the banks of Scatter Creek. His land was located directly on the old Oregon Trail at the point where it turned north to Tumwater and the Hudson’s Bay Company trail continued eastward to Yelm Prairie and to Fort Nisqually.
It wasn’t long before the Hodgdon Farm was referred to as “Hodgdon’s Station” and became a regular stop on the stage coach road from the Columbia to Olympia. Soon Samuel Davenport took up an adjoining land claim to the west, and B.F. Henness settled on the east side of the present town-site.
Stephen Hodgdon became the area’s first postmaster, taking office in 1860. The surrounding area at that time was called “Coal Bank” after a ledge of coal on Blumauer Hill, and the post office bore that name until 1873.
In 1872 the railroad from Columbia reached Hodgdon’s farm and a station was built and named “Tenino”. It was the beginning of a settlement that later grew into the Town of Tenino. There is much speculation about the origin of the name, with stories that it was named after a railroad locomotive with the number 1090, or a survey stake with that designation marked on it. According to the railroad archives, neither of these tales is true. There is considerable evidence that the name preceded to the railroad and is of Indian origin, meaning “Meeting Place”. (Tenino Historian Rich Edwards explores this question in his book “The Naming of Tenino” available at the Museum).
With the railroad came the first retail business, a store operated by Fred Brown. Brown had moved along with the railroad construction crews in a tent store until reaching Tenino and apparently decided this was a good place to settle down. Joining the depot and the store to form the nucleus of a town was a hotel owned and operated by William Huston. “Uncle Billy” became well known far and wide for his hospitality and for the fact that he kept a barrel of whiskey on hand for thirsty travelers. Billy sold two brands at the bar at 15 cents and 25 cents per shot, but both came from the same barrel!
The little settlement was pretty quiet for it’s first few years, with the majority of its commerce coming from farmers around the area and the fact that it was Olympia’s closest connection with the railroad. Two stages a day between Olympia and Tenino made connections with trains going to Tacoma or Portland.
Being cut off from the railroad did not set to well with the Olympians and they began to promote a narrow gauge line from the territory’s capital to Tenino. After much trouble and delays the branch line was finally completed in July of 1878. Originally built by the Thurston County Railroad Construction Company, the line was renamed the Olympia and Chehalis Valley Railroad in 1881 and ten years later became the Port Townsend and Southern Railroad Company.
The additional railroad line gave Tenino another boost, but it was 1888 before the community really began to grow with the founding of the first sandstone quarry, S.W. Fenton and George VanTine located a good grade of building stone on the hill south of Tenino and began an industry that changed Tenino from a sleepy little whistle stop to a bustling town.
Vantine and Fenton’s Tenino Stone Co. was located on the site of the present city park and pool, and began shipping stone out in 1889. A second quarry soon followed east of town on the Military road, and was called Eureka Sandstone Co. A third quarry was located on Lemon Hill west of Tenino in the early 1900’s by H.P. Scheel and William McAurther under the name of the Hercules Stone Co.
Stone quarrying became Tenino’s major industry until the market began to die out about 1915 -20, with concrete replacing stone as a major building material. Some of Tenino’s quarries operated as late as the 1930’s but only on a limited basis.
As the stone quarries prospered, so did Tenino, and by 1890 the population was up to 390. By the early 1900’s there were more than a thousand people and Tenino was termed “a real boom-town” by the old-timers. Adding to the commerce of the area were a number of logging companies and mills. In Tenino itself was the Mentzer Brothers Mill and the Jonis Spar Co., and just south of town was the Skookumchuck Mill.
By 1905 Tenino had four grocery stores, two meat markets, a half dozen saloons, three hotels, two dry goods stores, two livery stables, two doctors, a laundry, a newspaper, a drug store, and a variety of other stores, including jewelers, cigar stores, confectioners, and even a stationer.
The quarrying business in Tenino got shot in the arm for a time when the Hercules Company began supplying stone for breakwater projects at Grays Harbor. Rock was supplied from the “Hercules No.2” plant on the Military Road and from a quarry on the Skookumchuck River about three miles above the present dam. Unfortunately, the project was cancelled with the outbreak of World War I.
Following World War I the area’s boom began to slow down, and Tenino’s population dropped as quarries and several mills closed. Logging and farming became the major economic factors in the area and Tenino settled down to begin a trading center for the south central part of the county.
In the 1920’s there were a number of attempts to drill for oil around Tenino and there was much speculation in oil stocks. As one after another of the wells failed to produce oil, the enthusiasm cooled and finally died out completely. Sporadic drilling has been done since that time, but none successfully.