Martin Dies Jr. State Park is a 705 acre recreational area nestled alongside B.A. Steinhagen Reservoir between Woodville and Jasper Texas. The park is composed of 3 separate units located in both Jasper and Tyler County. 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. Martin 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. Martin Dies saw combat in Leyte Gulf and Okinawa where he received multiple commendations for his actions. After the war, Martin Dies completed his law degree from Southern Methodist University and joined the family practice in Lufkin. Later, Martin 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 Parks and Wildlife Commission honored him by re-naming 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, 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 by the lumberjack’s saw. Even though the park is heavily forested, most of the forest is second generation growth; however it is not impossible 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. In February 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 between US Highway 190.
September 12, 1947, groundbreaking ceremonies took place to build 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 the Martin Dies Jr. State Park that is here today.
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 would weave baskets and reed mats. Handmade musical instruments have been found including drums and flutes. The Caddoans practiced agriculture and cultivated multiple crops included corn, squash, beans and tobacco. They stored a large supply of grain for times of drought in the pots and baskets that they craft. Game such as deer, rabbit, bear, javelin and fox, obtained through hunting and trapping supplemented their primary 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 that lived off the land brought with them a way of life that endured unchanged in East Texas until the 1960s.