Generations of local residents have never been shy about promoting the history of Tenino. From the train depot and its unique history with wooden money, to the sandstone quarry house, pool and city hall, those interested in the origin stories of the Pacific Northwest aren’t lacking for reference points in the Stone City.
For generations of Tenino residents, the origin of the name itself has proven to be a constant point of discussion without any definitive answers. Some people believe it came from the Northern Pacific Railroad’s designation of T-9-0 for the area or from a word used by the Chinook Tribe to describe a trail. Others pointed to the Tenino band of Native Americans that lived near the present-day Warm Springs Reservation north of Madras, Oregon.
Research recently completed by Rich Edwards, historian for the City of Tenino, has proven the latter group right — sort of. Edwards discovered that in 1872, one year before the Northern Pacific Railroad and homesteader Stephen Hodgden filed the paperwork with Thurston County creating the town of Tenino, a committee of railroad executives rode up the Columbia River on a steamboat called “The Tenino.”
Edwards published his research in a book titled “The Naming of Tenino” and will be signing copies of the book at the Tenino Depot Museum during Oregon Trail Days on July 26-28. The book chronicles Edwards’ work with the Minnesota Historical Society and the University of Oregon to review archival documents that lay out the sequence of events leading to the first designation of Tenino on Oct. 12, 1872.
“The town was named after the railroad depot, which was built in 1872,” Edwards said. “So I kept going back to, who named the depot? The thing that came up was that in 1871, the Northern Pacific Railroad, in building their railway from Kalama to Hodgden Station, as it was known, bought an owning interest in the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, which operated on the Columbia River and Snake River. … The railroad sent members out here in October of 1872 to tour the Puget Sound on those steamboats in search of where to build their port.”
Tacoma was eventually chosen as the location for the port, but not before Northern Pacific Railroad president George Washington Cass made a motion to name the then-northernmost point on the rail line “Tenino.” He did so during a meeting with John Ainsworth, president of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, on Oct. 12, 1872, in Portland. A newspaper based out of Olympia, Washington referred to the steamboat as “old Tenino” and the “new town” of Tenino in an issue published the following month.
Edwards, who grew up in Tenino and has volunteered at the Depot Museum since retiring from the state library system in 2010, has served as the official town historian since 2018. As part of his research, he traveled to Eugene, Oregon to examine Ainsworth’s archives held by the University of Oregon and got copies of maps and other documents from the Thurston County Auditor’s Office. Edwards also worked with the Minnesota Historical Society to search for relevant documents in the archives of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which ceased independent operations in 1970.
“The idea that it was somehow a local name doesn’t make any sense, just from looking at the historic record,” Edwards said. “Now why the other stories came up, the population here remained small until they started quarrying sandstone and shipping it out of Tenino. Locals knew the railroad had named the town, so they figured it had something to do with that. But the railroad had been using ‘T90’ as an abbreviation in their paperwork since 1873. People figured the abbreviation created the name, but really, the name created the abbreviation.”
The Tenino band of Native Americans were relocated from their village near what is now The Dalles, the largest city in Wasco County, to the Warm Springs reservation in 1858. It is unknown whether the railroad executives would have passed the remains of the Tenino village or even seen some Tenino people along the river during their excursion, Edwards said, but they would have known the name of the steamboat.
Edwards wondered as he wrote his book what his conclusions would do to the mystique surrounding the true namesake of the city. Ultimately, he said, the job of a historian is to put out accurate, historic materials and that while he doesn’t have a smoking gun to point to, he has a lot of evidence to support his findings.
“We still use ‘T90’ on a lot of Tenino gear, and I would imagine that will continue,” Edwards said. “I don’t know how important it is to know, I just know that it’s a question historians have brought up and that people have asked about. The city has done an awful lot of work trying to make a historically deep community, which it is, and my job as city historian is to support that. This is just another piece in the historical puzzle of Tenino.”
A digital copy of Edwards’ book can be found at https://cityoftenino.us/sites/default/files/fileattachments/city_government/page/1719/the_naming_of_tenino_pdf_edition_corrected.pdf.