By STEVE KNIGHT
Neither the oldest, the largest, the most scenic or the most unique, Tyler State Park reigns as the crown jewel of East Texas state parks for one simple reason, it is profitable.
That isn’t to say the park doesn’t have enough space for its 162,000 annual visitors, nor that its towering pine trees and old oaks aren’t picturesque or that the bicycle trail, lake and Civilian Conservation Corps’ buildings don’t make it unique. It is just that for a cash-starved state agency, being one of about a dozen parks statewide covering operational costs is an important thing.
Built between 1939 and 1942, the 985-acre park actually opened to the public in 1941. It was built on land purchased from 10 different landowners, some of whom were willing sellers and others who ended up having their property taken through condemnation proceedings.
Park Manager Bill Smart said the site was chosen because it was some of the worst land around.
“This was a soil erosion site. It was poor farm country although some of it was being farmed,” he explained.
In the original plans the park was designed for day-use. There was a main road that ran through the park to the 65-acre lake and several dirt roads accessed the perimeter.
The four most visible contributions from the CCC remaining are the bathhouse, concession stand, the boathouse and lake. Less visible are the boulders that were hauled around to make culverts, dams and coffers to prevent soil erosion and an abandoned youth wading pool located just behind the current headquarters site.
What might be a surprise to most, Smart said, is that the original plans called for a golf course, similar to those built during the same era at Bastrop and Lockhart state parks. Its construction most likely was a victim of World War II.
Like at Daingerfield State Park, another CCC-built facility, original maps show the care taken in many details, most notably the relationship of the bathhouse to the park.
“If you look at the bathhouse it is framed by the lake. It even shows it that way on the map,” Smart said.
Tyler State Park is considered the area’s biggest tourist attraction, but it wasn’t developed for overnight camping until the 1960s. There are 175 campsites, including areas for cabins and screened shelters, tents and campers.
Today about half of the annual visitors are day-use, primarily from a 50-mile radius around the park.
According to the most recent figures, about three-quarters of the overnight campers come from outside the area. In many instances it is visitors who return year after year.
“Tyler State Park, like a lot of the older parks, is generational camping. They say ‘My parents came with my grandparents and my parents brought me, and now I am bringing my kids,’” Smart said.
The rolling terrain wrapping around the lake actually makes the park seem larger than it is. The old farmland is now covered by a variety of native trees that are only as old as the park itself. Controlled fire is used to keep the understory open.
The lake was the original focus of the park and in many ways still is. Summer visitors share it for swimming, fishing, or riding kayaks, canoes and paddle boats. Twice a year in the winter the TPWD Fisheries Division stocks the lake with rainbow trout.
“I wasn’t always a supporter of stocking trout, but I am here. It really is an attraction I think mainly because we have been doing it so long. They started stocking them here in the 1980s,” Smart said.
In the spring, bass fishermen move on to the lake hoping to catch trophy bass that have been feeding on the trout. The lake has produced a pair of 13-pound-plus ShareLunker bass, including a 14.5-pound lake record.
“In the spring they know those big fish are out there. The lake is only 65 acres and there isn’t a lot of structure so it doesn’t take a lot of knowledge to fish,” Smart said. He added that there are a number of 5- to 10-pound bass caught on the lake each spring, but since most fishermen keep it a secret no one knows what else is being caught.
The lake has an infamous history. In 1963 the dam broke and the lake remained dry for two years before it was rebuilt.
In the 1950s and 60s the park drew a young crowd who came to weekend dances. Today 11 miles of bike and hike trails developed in the late 1990s by the Tyler Bicycle Club is a big draw.
“Mountain biking is huge. It is great for visitation. We have everyone from beginners to experts. There are a lot of locals, but we also have a lot come from Dallas-Fort Worth. I have talked to some that drive down to ride and then drive back to Dallas,” Smart said.
The park’s trails are also popular with those just wanting to take a hike in the woods.
Throughout the year, but especially during the spring and summer, the park hosts various programs for visitors. One of the more recent programs taught families how to camp. There are also regular programs on birding and occasional star gazing parties.
Smart said programs aren’t just educational, but are also recreational for urban visitors who might visit the park and not know how to spend unstructured time.
Along with in-park programs, the park also hosts tours into Tyler highlighting locations like the Caldwell Zoo, the Smith County Historical Society, the Goodman-LeGrand house, McClendon house and Brookshire’s World of Wildlife.
Having grown up a Tyler State Park visitor, Smart said he wished visitors would go beyond just admiring its scenery.
“They are looking at the beauty of nature and not understanding what they are looking at or what it took to get it here. I wish they would learn about the history of the CCC and what they did like the huge boulders that are around the park that were brought in by these boys. I wish they would understand what it took to get it here and that it is still here,” Smart said.
The daily admission price park was raise to $5 per person last year after a capital improvement program. Prices weren’t raised at the park this spring when other park fees were being raised.