Like many Chronicle readers, I have been reading the articles and letters discussing the future use of the land now held by TransAlta at the Centralia Steam Plant site. What will happen to this huge acreage when it is up for grabs? Will it become a wildlife refuge? Will it become part of an industrial park? Just what purpose will it serve? Various interests are arguing and discussing this question, sometimes heatedly. Yet during all the controversy over the purpose of the land, no mention has been made of the fact that somewhere, buried under slag or under water, lies the site of Tono, Washington, and along with the town site lies an important piece of local and state history.
Tono, located about 2 miles east of Bucoda, existed from the year it was founded by the Washington Union Coal Company in 1907 until it was obliterated in the 1980s by strip mining operations. It was a company town built to provide housing for the miners who mined coal to fuel the steam locomotives owned and operated by the Union Pacific Railroad. In the 1920s, Tono’s peak years, the town had a population of over 1,000 living souls and was proud to offer not only housing but a hotel, a hospital, a store and a school — all owned by the mining company.
By the 1950s, however, diesel fuel had replaced coal as the fuel of choice for locomotives, and most of the town’s inhabitants had left. The mines were closed, and the town sat empty except for the home of the former mine superintendent. At the end of the 1960s, the site became part of the area to be strip mined to provide fuel for the Centralia Power Plant. Whatever was left of Tono was destroyed during the strip-mining process.
I once tried to find out just exactly where the site of Tono is located, and somebody told me that it lies beneath one of the ponds near the Centralia Steam Plant buildings, the person thought. He wasn’t sure. There are, however, people living in this area who probably do know exactly where the site of Tono lies despite the fact that along the Old Tono Road there are no markers to memorialize the town.
The question remains, then, of whether the new owners of the site that is presently in the hands of TransAlta will ensure that the town of Tono and its story be remembered. After all, in the 1920s and part of the 1930s, Tono coal fueled a lot of steam locomotives that pulled vital goods to all parts of our nation and kept our economy spinning. Not only that, but in the early 1940s, locomotives fueled by Tono coal pulled cars carrying military troops up and down the coast to their posts. I know that because I remember sitting on sailors’ laps when I was five years old in 1945 and singing the cleaned-up version of “Bell Bottom Trousers, Coat of Navy Blue” while the steam loco puffed and whistled its way to Seattle.
So what will happen to the site of Tono when the new owners take over? Will all traces of the town and its story disappear forever under the asphalt and concrete of a new shopping center or under a sea of look-alike new homes and gated developments? Or might the local historians and citizens of our area persuade the state to develop a small information center so that the story of Tono will be an integral part of our area’s history for a long time. So what about Tono?