The Tenino Stone: One of the big three Washington state building stones

Like many cities, Seattle can trace its use of building stone to fire. On June 6, 1889, John E. Back, described in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as “a thick-set blond of mediocre intelligence,” let his pot of glue boil over and onto the stove in a downtown, basement-level cabinet making shop. Acting eagerly but incorrectly, Back tossed water on the flames, which spread the fire to wood shavings on the floor. Soon the entire wooden structure was burning. Before Seattle’s Great Fire could be contained, it burned more than 115 acres and destroyed the downtown retail and industrial core. Within days the earnest little town vowed it would rebuild, but this time with a material that could better withstand fire—rock.

Two types of rock entered the city: sandstone and granite. A quarry in Index, 35 miles northeast of Seattle, supplied the salt-and-pepper granite. Sandstone came from three quarries. Bellingham quarries supplied the Chuckanut, while other quarry sites near Tenino, 12 miles southeast of Olympia, and Wilkeson, 15 miles east of Tacoma, provided rocks known by their locality name. The quarries succeeded because they combined proximity to water or rail transport with a homogeneous, well-cemented, low-porosity rock.

Despite the 125 miles separating the quarries, they share a related geologic history. The great beds of western Washington sandstone were deposited 40 to 50 million years ago in the Eocene Epoch when a subtropical climate dominated. Palm trees, swamp cypresses, and tree-sized ferns grew in the moist (40-100 inches of rain), bayou-like environment. The area that would become western Washington lacked the dramatic topography that now dominates. Instead, a broad, low-elevation coastal plain extended eastward into central Washington. Rivers and streams meandered toward a coastal lowland dotted with seasonal lakes, swamps, and lagoons. As the water spread toward the ocean, it deposited bed upon bed of sand, eventually building up several thousand feet of sandstone.

Recently, I toured the Tenino sandstone quarry, which reopened in the early 1990s, after being shut since 1938. It is now owned by Marenakos Rock Center, which sells split pieces for a variety of uses and also sells stone for restoration work.

The Tenino quarry, February, 2010.

Samuel Fenton and George Van Tine opened the town’s first quarry in 1889, after they had to spend the night near Tenino because they missed the last train to town. That quarry has become the town swimming pool. The present quarry, just west of town, opened in the early 1900s. Resident stone carver Keith Phillips showed me around the site.

Compared with some quarries I have seen in Indiana and Minnesota, the Tenino quarry is quite small—basically a 140-foot-high cliff face. As you can see from the photo, our warm, wet PNW climate has led to mosses and ferns growing on the former cutting planes. The low wall of dirt and debris in front of the quarry blocks the present cutting zone, where the front end loader sits. Just two men work the quarry, relying on machinery to do the dirty work of drilling channels, driving in the plug and feathers, and pounding the plugs. The drill is carbide tipped and spins and pounds to cut a channel about two inches wide. Each layer is bit under four feet deep. After quarrying the stone is shipped by truck to the Marenakos yard in Preston, Washington. In the old days, a train spur went directly into the quarry yard.

The quarry process. Hydraulic drilling machine, drilling bit, cut channel, inserted plug and feather splitting method.

The Tenino was used primarily in the northwest, including the east wing of the Washington state capitol, the old and beautiful, main branch of the Seattle Public Library (destroyed long ago), and the Bailey, or Broderick Building. Other non-local Tenino buildings include the Northern Pacific station in Missoula, Calvary Presbyterian in San Francisco, and the main high school in Stockton, California.

Bailey, or Broderick Building in Seattle, 1892.

The Tenino heyday did not last long and by the early 1910s, quarry owners turned to a different use of stone for their quarry. On February 17, 1912, they placed 43,100 pounds of black power and 1,200 pounds of 60% dynamite into two tunnel systems stretching hundreds of feet under the quarry. The “Big Blast,” as it was called, shot massive blocks hundreds of feet, covered the rail spur, and injured spectators. It also generated 500,000 tons of rock, much of it too fractured to use. Still enough good rock resulted from the blast for the Tenino quarry to supply up to 1,600 tons daily, but unfortunately World War I led to the cancellation of the contract and the quarry owners went bankrupt.

Tenino blocks come in two colors: an unoxidized blue, or dark grey, and an oxidized buff. Quarry owners discovered though that people didn’t like the heterogeneity and figured out that if they applied a phosphoric acid treatment, they could prevent the color from changing over time. The acid could help alter heterogeneity within the rock as well.

Stained (on the left) and unstained blocks of Tenino sandstone

My tour guide Keith Phillips has worked at the quarry for many years. He is a master stone carver and uses many tools from earlier generations of stone masons. His work is quite stunning and beautiful. His best known projects were for the Temple of Justice and lantern on the State Capitol, both in Olympia. If Keith is any indication, Tenino sandstone will continue to be one of the premier Washington state building stones. For more information on the Tenino quarries, there is an excellent article by geo-historian Dave Knoblach in the July 1999 issue of Washington Geology.

Some of Keith’s work.