There has been a rumor floating around Tenino for a very long time. I remember as a youth standing in the middle of a complex of buildings that made up the True Value Hardware Store and someone telling me that I was standing in the oldest building in Tenino. I remember thinking, “How strange that there isn’t a plaque or something.” The reason is simple – the building’s heritage has never been officially recognized.

Tenino’s Mayor, Wayne Fournier, asserts that it is not just the oldest building in Tenino, it could be one of the oldest hotels in Washington State. “It’s a theory,” says Fournier, “supported by evidence.”

The building in question is believed to be the Huston Hotel which was built in 1872. For a brief time, the Tenino Station was the northern terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad, until construction resumed on the line in 1873 and the track continued to Tacoma. At the location of the station, a depot, water tank and turntable were installed. Fred Brown decided it was a fine spot to put a store, and William “Billy” Huston built a two-story hotel which became known as the Huston Hotel. According to Arthur Dwelley’s book, Prairies and Quarries, “in a matter of weeks the quiet prairie was converted to a small village.”

William Huston, Tenino
Hotelier William “Billy” Huston was a gregarious personality who was willing to do whatever it takes to keep his business going including putting it on rollers and moving it across town. Photo credit: South Thurston County Historical Society

The location of all this activity in the 1870s was Park Street. The depot would go on to serve both the Northern Pacific Railroad and the Thurston County Railroad which ran from Olympia to Tenino.  All railroads in the vicinity passed through the Tenino Station and by the Huston Hotel.

Billy Huston was often mentioned in local newspapers for his gregarious personality. According to Dwelley, “The hotel became Tenino‘s first real hostelry and saloon, and Billy Huston became noted for providing excellent hospitality, good food, an occasional all-night poker game and 15 cent and 25 cent whiskeys from the same barrel on the back porch.”

For reasons unknown today, the Northern Pacific Railroad moved its depot to the Tenino Junction in 1890. Several businesses and citizens followed suit, including the Huston Hotel, which was put on rollers and moved south since the primary function of the hotel was to serve travelers. In Tenino, WA: The Decades of Boom and Bust, by Scott McArthur, the author notes, “Both Tenino and Tenino Junction appeared as separate communities on maps of the early 1890s.”

But according to the Ellensburg Daily Record of July 6, 1953. the town of Tenino was not ready to give up its citizens.

“When a Tenino hotel owner in 1890 put his business on rollers and moved from the center of town, he was not alone. About 500 citizens of the little Thurston County town packed their belongings and migrated to a railway junction where the depot had been relocated. And the event just about ruined Tenino. Overnight the new depot site was a scene of robust activity. With its fast-growing population and a hotel besides, the ‘new’ Tenino offered a challenge that might well have taxed the wisest of town councils. But the town fathers of Tenino accepted the challenge. In a gamble to stop the migration and to win back old citizens, they made an offer of free land to anyone who cared to reside in Tenino. This real estate handout did the trick, and Tenino was spared the fate of a ghost town. And reclaimed in the gamble was the rolling hotel.”

After the real estate handout, the new town center was Sussex Street, which serves as Tenino’s main street today. There is no decisive account of where Huston moved his hotel or if Huston was still the owner. Richard Edwards, historian for the South Thurston County Historical Society, wrote an essay titled “History of the Huston Hotel, Tenino, WA 1872-2015,” in which he lays out an intriguing chronology for the hotel based on many sources including a series of interviews of old timers that appeared in The Thurston County Independent in 1935. Though there is some squabbling over details, two of the accounts agree that the Huston Hotel was moved to Sussex.

Huston Hotel Tenino, WA
The Huston Hotel is shown in it’s original location on Park Street in Tenino in 1883. According to the caption on the back of the photo it is, “…on Sussex street now between Hodgden and Stage Street, Tenino.” Photo credit: South Thurston County Historical Society

From the February 8, 1935, edition, “The article last week concerning T. F. Metzner was all wrong concerning the old Bill Huston hotel, he states. The building still persists, now as the hotel operated by A. W. Langingham, after having wandered over several locations. Mr. Clowers can point out the old liquor room where all kinds of drinks were served from the same barrel; in fact he even indicated that he could find heel marks on the wall of the notorious little room.”

Dwelley also had his theories on the subject. He wrote that “Billy Huston’s Hotel was one that returned uptown and was placed on Sussex Street where it is now part of Tenino True Value Hardware, and the oldest building in town.”

Michael Houser, the Washington State Architectural Historian, weighed in on Tenino’s hope that it may have one of the oldest hotels in Washington State. He was understandably dubious.

“The hotel sits a few blocks outside the designated National Register-listed historic district in Tenino. I’d be a bit leery of an 1872 construction date. We have very few structures in Washington from that early 1870 period still standing, and architecturally that’s not quite what we would expect from that date, albeit the building looks to be quite altered. We just listed an early hotel on the National Register in Index, built in 1900, the Hotel St. Martin in Carson built in1904 and the St. Elmo Hotel in Palouse built in1885.”

Houser recommended looking to the Sanborn Maps for further evidence, which, as it turns out, Edwards had already done. According to the Northern Pacific map of the 1880s the building marked “Hotel” on Park Street is 60’ x 33.’  The Sanborn map of 1910 shows a building of similar proportions labeled “Boarding” on Sussex at the location of the old True Value. The 1942 Sanborn Map shows a building in that spot labeled “Lodgings.”

Huston Hotel, Tenino, WA
This composite photo shows the old Huston Hotel combined with the building on Sussex believed to be the same. Photo credit: Richard Edwards

To aid in the search for the truth, a documented trail of ownership from one hotelier to the next would be helpful. Both Edwards and Fournier have expressed an interest in carbon dating the location. Edwards wrote, “Using dendrochronology or carbon-14 dating to determine the age of the oldest wood in the structure might lend credence to its age or prove it is too new to be the old Huston Hotel.”

The mystery is not over as interest in the site builds and the search for definitive proof continues. Stay tuned as the mystery unfolds.

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