Martin Dies, Jr. State Park is a 705-acre recreational area nestled alongside B.A. Steinhagen Reservoir between Woodville and Jasper. The park is composed of three separate units located in both Jasper and Tyler counties. The land for the park was acquired under a long-term lease from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1964, and officially opened under the name of Dam B State Park in 1965.
Born and raised in East Texas, Martin Dies, Jr. spent many summers as a boy at his father’s farm near Bevilport (Jasper County). Much of his childhood was spent riding horses through the forest and river bottoms on the future lands of the park. Dies graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University in 1942. When the United States entered World War II, he volunteered to join the Navy. During the war, he served as an officer aboard the destroyer USS Richard Suessens. Dies saw combat in Leyte Gulf and Okinawa where he received multiple commendations for his actions. After the war, he completed his law degree from Southern Methodist University and joined the family practice in Lufkin. Later, Dies served as a Texas State Senator for eight years before becoming Secretary of State of Texas. In September of 1971, he became the Chief Justice of the Ninth Court of Appeals in Beaumont, until 1989 when he retired. Throughout his years of public service, he devoted much effort to improving the state park system, and therefore the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission honored him by renaming Dam B State Park to Martin Dies, Jr. State Park in 1965.
In the mid-1800s, the Neches River was a major artery of commerce for the region. Steamboats opened up trade routes between East Texas, Galveston, and New Orleans. In 1882, the first railroad came into Tyler County, thus competing with the steamboats as transportation, and eventually putting them out of business.
The timber industry became big business in East Texas after the Civil War, and in 1907 Texas ranked third among the lumber-producing states, and the lands that would eventually become Martin Dies, Jr. State Park were not spared the lumberjack’s saw. Even though the park is heavily forested, most of the forest is second generation growth; however it is possible to spot some old growth trees while hiking around the park.
In 1936, plans to build a bridge to connect Tyler and Jasper counties were underway. There was a privately-owned toll ferry along state highway 45 that could be used to cross the Neches River, but it was unreliable when water levels were high. On Feb. 12, 1943, the new Neches Bridge opened connecting travel between Tyler and Jasper counties, connecting the land of the future Martin Dies Jr. State Park with U.S. Highway 190.
Sept. 12, 1947, groundbreaking ceremonies took place for Dam B (Steinhagen Lake). This dam promised employment, economic and recreational development, flood control, and water conservation. In the 1960s,, development of a new state park along the reservoir was underway, supported by local East Texans and their state senator, Martin Dies, Jr. This new state park would eventually become Martin Dies, Jr. State Park.
Archeological evidence indicates human activity in the vicinity of the park and surrounding areas for several thousand years. Southeast Texas was influenced by two major Native American Indian groups: the Atakapans towards the coast and the Caddoans to the north. Both consisted of a number of tribes.
The Caddoans were composed of over two dozen tribes loosely joined into three confederacies: Hasinai, Kadohadacho, and Natchitoches. The Hasinais inhabited the region of the middle and upper Neches and upper Angelina river valleys. The name of the Neches River comes from the Neches tribe. The Caddo culture is believed to go back over 1,000 years.
The Caddo were expert craftsmen, making very beautiful decorative pottery from the East Texas clay and often weaving baskets and reed mats. Handmade musical instruments have been found, including drums and flutes. The Caddoans practiced agriculture and cultivated multiple crops, including corn, squash, beans and tobacco. They stored a large supply of grain for times of drought in the pots and baskets that they crafted. Game such as deer, rabbit, bear, javelin and fox, obtained through hunting and trapping, supplemented their primarily agrarian existence. The woods also provided wild fruits, nuts and honey.
The Caddoans continued to live in the Neches and Angelina river valleys into the 1830s, before being forced out of Texas into Oklahoma where they are now a federally recognized tribe.
The first Anglo settlers moved into the area in the early 1820s and found the Neches waterway to be abundant with ducks, fish, and other game wildlife such as deer, turkey, and black bear. The wide variety of trees and shrubs in the area provided fruit and nuts for food throughout the year. These settlers who lived off the land brought with them a way of life that endured unchanged in East Texas until the 1960s.