The city came into existence in the early 1870s, when a railroad under construction from Kalama to Tacoma located a camp on the site of the present town. Some local historians relate that the name of the city was taken from the number of the engine that ran on the line—No. 1090, ten-nine-o. Others insist that the Native Americans called the town “Tenino” (“junction,” or “fork”), when the railroad came through and connected with the Olympia mail stage.
In 1890, an event occurred which almost split the town in two. The depot was moved to a rail junction outside the town center, and a settlement was vigorously promoted at the new site. A hotel was hastily placed on rollers and hustled along after the depot. Several buildings were constructed; business began to spring up, and about 500 people were drawn there. The Tenino fathers, in a desperate effort to keep the original town intact, offered free real estate to anyone who would settle in it and the tide of emigration was stemmed. The truant hotel and other buildings were soon trundled back to the original site.
Tenino was front page news in the Nation’s newspapers in 1932, when it issued wooden money following failure of the local bank. The experiment seemed to work; and later, what started as a desperate emergency effort turned out to be very profitable: about $11,000 of the “lumberjack” was sold to collectors throughout the Nation. An echo of the Tenino adventure in “wooden money” was heard in the State when, following enactment of the State sales tax, veneer tax tokens were used during a temporary shortage of metal tokens.
Tenino sandstone, from near-by quarries, has been used in the Old Capitol Building at Olympia, and Science Hall at Pullman. On February 17, 1912, a blast in which two carloads of powder were exploded was shot at the No. 2 quarry of the Hercules Sandstone Company to supply the first Grays Harbor jetty with 375,000 cubic yards of rock.
A small shingle mill and neighboring farms support the town. Dairy farms and berry fields are seen along the country roads in the vicinity, where one strawberry farm, two thousand acres in extent, is situated.