Originally settled by Stephen Hodgden when he came west from his home state of Maine for the California Gold Rush, Tenino has its roots as the Hodgden Farm, which gradually became known as "Hodgden's Station" as it became a regular stop on the stage coach road from the Columbia River to Olympia. Adjoining lands were soon settled on either side of the current town site.
In 1872 the railroad from the Columbia reached Hodgden'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 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 the railroad and is of Indian origin, meaning branch in the trail or meeting place.
The railroad brought the first retail businesses: a store, hotel, with the majority of commerce coming from farmers around the area and the fact that it was Olympia's closest connection with the railroad. Two trains a day between Olympia and Tenino made connections with trains going to Tacoma or Portland. needing a more direct train line, Olympia added its own branch line which further strengthened the town of Tenino.
In 1888, the community really began to grow with the founding of the first sandstone quarry when 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. The 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 called Eureka Sandstone Co. and a third, Hercules Stone Co., was founded on Lemon Hill west of Tenino in the early 1900's.
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. A number of logging companies and mills also added to the region's commerce.
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 ever a stationer.
Following World War I the areas 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 being a trading center for the south central part of the county.
The Great Depression hit Tenino as hard as most other areas of the country, but made the town famous at the same time. As the home of Wooden Money, Tenino hit the front pages of newspapers all over the world, as mentioned in the Congressional Record, and garnered much publicity. The wooden money idea grew out of a Tenino Chamber of Commerce plan to issue emergency scrip to relieve the money shortage caused by the failure of The Citizens Bank of Tenino. The original scrip was on paper but was soon changed to printed slice wood of spruce and cedar, and immediately became famous as the original wooden money. Eight issues were printed between 1932 and 1933 with a total of $10,308 of the wooden currency put into circulation. It became a collector's item and only $40 was ever redeemed by the Chamber.
Through the 1940's and 1950's Tenino businesses primarily served travelers on the old Pacific Highway, despite the town's reputation as a "speed trap". After the opening of the new freeway in 1954, a number of the businesses closed. However, in the 1960's, Tenino began to share the growth that had begun in the greater Puget Sound region. No definite upsurge was noticeable, but once more the town was growing in population. In 1967 announcement was made of the proposed building of a thermal-electric generating plant in the Hanford Valley south of Tenino and the re-opening of the once active Tono Coal fields. The plant went into operation in the fall of 1971.
Tenino's growth continued through the 1970's with the southern part of Thurston County becoming one of the state's fastest growing areas. The building recession of the early 1980's slowed that considerably, but Tenino is again growing and looks forward to the future with well over a hundred years of history already behind it and confidence in the years to come.