It was hot and sweltering that summer of 1860 as the old steam train, packed with its human freight, chugged and bucked its way through the forested hills. Three hundred and sixty Yankee prisoners-of-war, many diseased or wounded, struggled to survive the squalid conditions, stuffed into cattle cars like sardines. Most had no idea where they were headed. Just outside Tyler, Texas, in Smith County, sprawled Camp Ford—the largest Confederate prisoner-of-war camp west of the Mississippi. With over six thousand Union prisoners, this was just one of the contributions Tyler made to the war effort. Other facilities in the area included an ordnance works, a medical laboratory and a bustling rifle works.
The city of Tyler Texas is much different today, with little evidence of battle scars from the strife and bloodshed of the Civil War. The city is pristine, bustling and beautiful, brimming with life and commerce. Tyler is arguably the commercial nerve center of east Texas. But the history of this area significantly predates the Civil War.
People have been attracted to the region since 10,000 B.C. when Paleo-Indians traveled through pursuing large, long extinct, mammals. Later, the Caddo people cleared the forests to grow crops, hunted local game and brought a more sophisticated level of civilization to the territory. Upon arrival and eventual dominance of European settlers, the area was popular for its agriculture, timber resources and generous rainfall.
Tyler State Park is secreted away just a few miles north of the city, without much celebration. It occupies slightly more than 985 acres of heavily forested rolling hills. Because the land was striated by deep ravines and devoid of rail lines, it made difficult farming for early residents. Private landowners sold the land to the state in 1934 and 1935. The next year saw the CCC move in and take on a bleak and decimated landscape, cleared of nearly all the native trees. The first task was to restore the land to its natural state. Erosion control features were built, followed by replanting over 600 acres with native trees and shrubs grown from a nursery on site. The boys of the “Forest Army” would go on to build what would become one of the premier parks in the Texas state park system.
We visited Tyler State Park in the springtime, anxious to get away, lose ourselves in the serenity of an old growth forest and soak up the color and culture of the nearby city. From Bastrop, drive time to the park was a tad over four hours. To do justice to Tyler State Park and surrounding area will require more than a day trip—there is too much to see and do.
As you turn into the extended entrance to the park, the roadway is lined with loblolly pines so tall and majestic that shade is present throughout the day. With average annual rainfall of 44 inches and a subtropical climate, the forest is lush and vibrant. The tall timber is of mature pine-hardwoods—loblolly pines dominating the lower elevations and shortleaf pine claiming the higher, drier ground. There is also a variety of hardwoods like sweetgum, oak, pecan, walnut and more. Most of these grand old trees are 75-years old or better. The park skirts the western edge of the Pineywoods ecoregion, smudging the line with the Post Oak Savanah and thus, trees from both regions thrive here.
The main park road encircles the entire recreation area with the trees making a quiet leafy tunnel. There are frequent side roads winding through wooded picnic areas, secluded campsites and group meeting facilities, all designed to satisfy any preferred method of enjoying nature in the raw. Individuals, families and extended groups all can find private places to play, relax and disconnect. You will find young families in droves here on weekends, children flitting back and forth like sparrows—a harbinger of hope.
Aside from the grandeur of the timberland, one of the privileges of visiting the park is happening upon the spring-fed CCC-constructed lake for the first time. It’s a jewel blue, bright and beautiful little 64-acre lake, set like a mirror in a frame of verdant green. It sports three fishing piers, boat rentals and enough sunshine to keep the water warm and inviting all day long. In constructing the lake, the CCC damned an unnamed creek, built the earthworks to hold the water and allowed the overflow to filter into Saline Creek, a major tributary of the nearby Sabine River. It is especially beautiful in late evening as you watch the daylight sail away. The sky is dark and blue. Then just dark.
As stated, camp sites and walking trails are nestled inside some of the most extraordinary forest found anywhere in Texas. There is a feeling of peace—sweet solitude—without the associated loneliness of wilderness isolation. This park offers the standard amenities, including limited use cabins, screen shelters, camp sites and group meeting facilities. But it stands out in other ways. Architecture does not follow the “NPS rustic” style used in most other CCC parks, but a more modern form preferred by State Parks Board planners at the time. The special beauty of the man-made lake attracts day-trippers from all around. A popular area getaway, it offers a boat ramp, boat rentals, swimming and an impressive gift shop. The water is almost continually peppered with small watercraft, swimmers and fishermen.
For its size, the city of Tyler presents a full slate of attractions and fun activities of its own. The climate and soil are ideal for roses and azaleas—the city is known as the Rose Capital of Texas; consequently, Tyler is home to the Azalea Festival in April and the Rose Festival in October each year. These flower festivals draw tourists, photographers and artists from far away. The city maintains a breathtaking year-round display of cultivated roses at its expansive Rose Garden Center. Adding depth to the festivals, Tyler puts on accompanying events such as simultaneous historic home tours (complete with costumed Southern Belles) and promotes local museums, art galleries and walking tours. To maintain momentum, the city hosts the East Texas State Fair each September, a regional celebration of east Texas pride.
Tyler State Park should be on all Texans’ bucket list. Texas is crowned with a rich diversity of geography and this park is a regional jewel, proclaiming its uniqueness among other ecosystems in our state. It exists without fanfare, without notoriety or pretense, yet its natural beauty will put a lump in your throat, arrest your breathing and render you momentarily speechless. After our visit, my memories are vivid and graphic. It’s as if we have somehow touched the past. Certainly beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the epitaph on the gravestone of Sir Christopher Wren says it best: “If you need a monument, look around you.”