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Parks for Texas

Parks for Texas
Enduring Landscapes of the New Deal

The first comprehensive history of the founding and building of the Texas state park system.

Series: Clifton and Shirley Caldwell Texas Heritage Endowment, Number One

April 1999
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330 pages | 6 x 9 | 59 halftones, 1 map, 19 tables |

State parks across Texas offer a world of opportunities for recreation and education. Yet few park visitors or park managers know the remarkable story of how this magnificent state park system came into being during the depths of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Drawing on archival records and examining especially the political context of the New Deal, James Wright Steely here provides the first comprehensive history of the founding and building of the Texas state park system.

Steely's history begins in the 1880s with the movement to establish parks around historical sites from the Texas Revolution. He follows the fits-and-starts progress of park development through the early 1920s, when Governor Pat Neff envisioned the kind of park system that ultimately came into being between 1933 and 1942.

During the Depression an amazing cast of personalities from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson led, followed, or obstructed the drive to create this state park system. The New Deal federal-state partnerships for depression relief gave Texas the funding and personnel to build 52 recreational parks under the direction of the National Park Service. Steely focuses in detail on the activities of the Civilian Conservation Corps, whose members built parks from Caddo Lake in the east to the first park improvements in the Big Bend out west. An appendix lists and describes all the state parks in Texas through 1945, while Steely's epilogue brings the parks' story up to the present.

  • List of Photo Sections
  • List of Tables
  • Author's Note
  • List of Terms and Abbreviations
  • Prologue, 1883-1932: See Texas First
  • Chapter 1. 1933: The Worst of Times, the Best of Times
  • Interlude. The CCC: A Well-Grounded, Well-Rounded Plan
  • Chapter 2. 1933: Assuming Full Responsibility
  • Chapter 3. 1934-1935: Colp and Neff Smite the Rock
  • Chapter 4. 1936-1938: Celebrating a Century of Progress
  • Chapter 5. 1939-1942: New Priorities
  • Chapter 6. 1942-1945: The End of the Beginning
  • Epilogue, Post-1945: The Road to the Future
  • Appendixes
  • A. State Park Catalog, through 1945
  • B. List of State Parks Accepted by the Legislature, 1927
  • C. Texas Congressional Districts, 1935
  • D. State Parks of Texas, 1945
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

James Wright Steely of Austin is Chief Historian at the Texas Historical Commission.


Texas should have led all other states in the Union in the ownership and maintenance of State parks, especially in view of the fact that of the forty-eight states she is the only one that once owned title to all her lands. When she entered the Union, she refused to surrender her public domain. Texas, however, has now sold or given away practically all of her public lands, aggregating one hundred and seventy-two million acres. She did not reserve one beauty spot, nor set aside anywhere one acre of land to be used and enjoyed by the public in the name of the State.

—Governor Pat Morris Neff, The Battles of Peace, 1925

In the Name of the State

in midwinter of 1883 John Ireland stepped into the perennial challenge of a freshman Texas governor pitted against a more seasoned bunch of legislators. Fortunately Ireland brought to his new position a progres sive vision of what this rapidly growing state could be, in both financial security and magnificent image. With admirable political skills, Ireland fulfilled a campaign promise by halting the state's overextended land-grant programs. He consequently saved some 27 million acres of public domain in West Texas as an earnings base for the permanent school fund. To settle another charged debate, the governor selected native red granite from Burnet County for the mammoth new State Capitol in Austin. Thus Ireland spared his fellow Texans possible embarrassment over the building contractor's preference for Indiana limestone.

And with an eye to the forthcoming fiftieth anniversary of the Texas Revolution, Ireland pushed the same legislature to preserve the two most beloved historic sites in the state. The Alamo church, centerpiece of the famous 1836 battle but by Ireland's day a forlorn relic in bustling downtown San Antonio, became state property with a $20,000 payment to the Roman Catholic diocese. At San Jacinto, where Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna's army and ensured Texas independence, the state acquired for $1,500 a ten-acre cemetery along Buffalo Bayou to memorialize that epic clash.

Governor Ireland and his fellow lawmakers might not have envisioned great public parks or dedicated pleasure grounds at these two sites. Nor did they imagine that the mythic desert of public domain in West Texas held any scenic wonders worthy of declaration as great natural parks. So, with exception of the Capitol grounds and state cemetery in Austin, enjoyed by local citizens since the 1850s as shady retreats from city life, the Alamo and San Jacinto represented the first efforts by the state to preserve special places for public gratification.

Texas leaders in the 1880s danced on the edge of growing national trends for government stewardship of public lands, as well as guardianship of the public's collective identity in scenery and battlefields. Only a few years before, in 1872, U.S. president Ulysses Simpson Grant declared the astonishing Yellowstone reservation in Wyoming the nation's, and the world's, first "national park." The State of New York stopped disposal of public lands in its Adirondack Mountains in 1883 and two years later designated Niagara Falls—already a major tourist attraction—as its first state park. The federal government also actively acquired landmarks of Civil War heroism, by the 1890s adding Shiloh and Vicksburg battlegrounds to a list of wartime cemeteries that already included Gettysburg and Antietam.

Other related trends embraced directly by Texans in the late nineteenth century influenced acquisition of Alamo and San Jacinto real estate as well. Transportation improvements, confined locally to better roads and bridges but extending across the state and nation through long-distance railroad connections, opened unprecedented opportunities for pleasure travel. Consequently, visitors on holiday or business in the burgeoning city of San Antonio—many qualified by their curiosity as tourists—added Alamo pilgrimages to travel itineraries. On an annual cycle, the Texas Veterans Association mustered on San Jacinto Day, sometimes in cities convenient to rail traffic, but often on April 21st with other pilgrims at the battlefield itself.

Summertime gatherings for retelling war stories also increased in popularity with Civil War veterans, who formed Texas affiliates of national organizations and hosted huge open-air reunions on dedicated campgrounds. Likewise black Texans, enjoying free movement in the post-war South, celebrated emancipation with grand outdoor picnics around June 19th. All these summer festivals strongly resembled the multiple-day rituals of "camp meetings," traditional revivals of rural church congregations. In fact, by the 1890s permanent religious campgrounds throughout Texas and the nation regularly hosted fair-weather secular programs, many on the Chautauqua and Lyceum educational circuits that crisscrossed the country by train. As more and more families railroaded to summer vacations, seeking educational as well as recreational holidays, the scenic grandeurs of the American West—Yellowstone and a growing list of national parks—became fashionable destinations with rustic hotels and fabulous meadows for camping. Finally at the turn of the century, competition for all these diversions with affordable European vacations rose to such intensity that rail-agent promoters of domestic travel implored summer pilgrims to "See America First."

The First State Parks for Texas

In 1891 the Texas Veterans Association, an aging group supporting further state land acquisition at San Jacinto, received a burst of energetic assistance. The newly formed Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) proclaimed from Houston that the nearby battlefield would be a major focus of their service. As the Daughters quickly grew into a statewide society, they exerted pressure on the legislature for San Jacinto appropriations. In addition, their Houston chapter took over the veterans association's plan and fund to erect a substantial monument at the site.

These Daughters of the 1890s proved the vanguard in Texas for a national movement of women's organizations that supported many broad and specific social concerns. These encompassed urban-reform issues of the time, such as child-labor abuses, health, recreation, and the need for public parks. Women's groups also promoted public education and the teaching of history, as illustrated by the Daughters' initial interest in battlegrounds and monuments. Unfortunately the Texas legislature did not respond in progressive fashion to the initial pleas of the DRT. An economic depression discouraged most innovations on the part of state government, although some legislators seemed interested at least in the novelty of honoring their heroes of the revolution. "We believe that the field of San Jacinto," maintained Representative E. W. Smith of Tyler in 1893, "should be the property of the state ... but in our opinion, Texas is not now in the mood, nor in the proper financial condition, to undertake such work."

Four years later, though, the state's economy had recovered and the Daughters found their own eloquent sponsor for land acquisition and improvements. Senator Waller Thomas Burns of Houston, a rare Republican in the legislature and a self-proclaimed progressive, orchestrated a legislative visit to the site. He declared such a tour was crucial, so that "the members of this honorable body may have the privilege of standing on that historic ground...immortally hallowed by the devotion and consecrated by the blood of the sons of Texas." With such oratory in 1897 Burns successfully extracted $10,000 from his colleagues and Governor Charles Allen Culberson "for the establishment of a public park." Although Culberson deleted additional funds for improvements, in the following four years a special state commission closed on 336 acres at San Jacinto.

While Daughters in Houston struggled to improve their state's expanded investment at San Jacinto, other chapters achieved measured success with the mercurial legislature. In 1905 newly enrolled Daughter Clara Driscoll convinced lawmakers to purchase the convento, or Long Barracks, property adjacent to the Alamo church for $65,000. And state officials agreed, upon further urging of Daughters in La Grange, to acquire the small cemetery at Monument Hill that entombed Texans killed during the republic's ill-fated Mier Expedition. Finally, in 1907 the Austin government directed $25,000 toward the first state-financed improvements at the battleground "hereafter [to] be known and styled `San Jacinto State Park'," the first officially so named.

With the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Texas Revolution approaching in 1911, legislators endorsed a number of commemorative activities, including major improvements to the Alamo. They also arranged for reinterment of Stephen Fuller Austin's remains from his Brazoria County burial to an elaborate new tomb at the capital city's state cemetery. And during this official enthusiasm the grave of Elizabeth Patton Crockett, Alamo martyr David Crockett's widow who accepted a Texas land bounty in Hood County seventeen years after her husband's death, received an imposing state monument at Acton near Granbury.

Other communities stepped forward during the next two years with offers of land, missing the jubilee but nonetheless inspired by state government's occasional patronage for Texas Revolution landmarks. Patriots in Goliad County proposed donation of the "Fannin battlefield," site of the ill-fated surrender on Coleto Creek about ten miles from the city of Goliad, plus sale of the ruined presidio La Bahia just south of town for $10,000. The 1913 legislature and Governor Oscar Branch Colquitt declined the old fort's purchase but accepted the 13-acre battleground donation for what became known as Fannin State Park. The city of Gonzales tendered a much larger offer of 150 acres from its city parklands in honor of the Battle of Gonzales, which took place not here but about four miles west of town. Embracing this donation with greater zeal, lawmakers appropriated $7,500 for improvements to their new Gonzales State Park.

The next governor, James Edward Ferguson, in 1915 openly supported this trend of land acquisition for state historical parks. Ferguson skillfully played a populist issue when he convinced the legislature to purchase 50 acres for $10,000 at Washington-on-the-Brazos, where Texans signed their 1836 declaration of independence. "I admonish you," Ferguson pressed lawmakers, "to preserve and beautify this hallowed ground ... where citizen and alien may gather in the years to come, and from the white dust of travel find rest and recreation." That same year the town of Refugio donated its entire public square to commemorate the nearby execution of Captain Amon Butler King and his men by Mexican troops. With addition of this King's State Park, the state now owned a scattered number of memorials, all commemorating the 1836 revolution and republic decade.

State officials entrusted management of the Alamo to the DRT, while memorials at Acton and La Grange became the responsibility of local volunteers. The five loosely designated "state parks"—Fannin, Gonzales, King's, San Jacinto, and Washington—were consigned to governorappointed local commissions. They, in turn, reported separately after 1919 to the state's new Board of Control, which also managed the Capitol grounds and state cemetery among several diverse institutions. Texas had state parks, as did a number of states by 1920, but no state park system.

Pat Neff's Crusade for a System

The "good roads" movement, expanding throughout the nation after 1900, promoted all-weather thoroughfares and a vast network of interconnecting routes. After 1910 good roads and bridges served as foundations for an astonishing proliferation of automobile sales to farmers, laborers, and middleclass city dwellers alike. Among many social changes wrought by this fantastic revolution, the independent nature of intercity auto travel induced overnight drivers to shun an entrenched urban and railroad-associated hotel routine in favor of any pastoral spot beside the open road. And as a national craze, free-wheeling jaunts in the rubber-tired machine ironically coupled with a "back to nature" movement, providing a quick escape to the breezy countryside for anyone who otherwise toiled day to day in stifling surroundings. But picnicking and camping motorists soon overwhelmed the most inviting roadside landscapes, and private landowners howled at the resulting damage. Many towns offered some relief by establishing camping sites at shaded outskirts, in an age-old tradition of accommodating pilgrims along their journey.

Pat Morris Neff proudly claimed to be the first Texas gubernatorial candidate to campaign for office by automobile, and he happily stretched his frugal travels through auto-camping. Before his party's primary election of August 1920, Neff declared he had driven some 6,000 miles in his Model T, speaking several times each day including stump—or bumper—deliveries in thirty-seven counties where no other governor had ever set foot. Despite his widespread popularity, though, the new chief executive met stubborn resistance in the 1921 legislature for his progressive ideas of water conservation and efficient government.

The governor's vision was then affected at a very personal level: his mother died a few months into his first term and bequeathed their family's small camp-meeting grove in Coryell County as a park "to the public." From his recent experiences in auto camping, the governor merged an idea of state-sponsored roadside campgrounds with his mother's gift of countrylane parkland and hit upon a major proposition for his second term. Also responding to pressure from a group in the Davis Mountains to create some sort of scenic reserve there, in 1922 Neff launched a veritable crusade to develop "State Parks for Texas," as he titled one of his mass-market articles. "Each year the host of those who take their vacation by automobile is multiplied," Neff observed, urging drivers to "see Texas first," on their weekends and holidays. "Texans can find no better channel to advertise her charms," he reasoned, "than by catering to the ever-increasing throng of vacationists who are certain to go where hard-surfaced highways and convenient camping sites abound."

Henceforth Neff roundly—if erroneously—criticized previous generations for not reserving "one beauty spot, nor set[ting] aside anywhere one acre of land to be used and enjoyed by the public." When Neff referred—infrequently—to the five existing state parks, he called them "sacred shrines" or simply "memorials," and he introduced his park-system bill in 1923 with the very different concept of roadside parks. When the measure emerged from legislative committees, it called primarily for the donation of potential sites, with the exception that a large park somewhere in the Davis Mountains might be financed by a future legislature. Pleased even with this first noncommittal legislative step, Neff signed the bill and approved a $1,500 appropriation for site inspections.

Retaining an important Neff recommendation, the bill established the State Parks Board to carry out inspections, and the governor appointed its members: David Edward Colp, San Antonio good-roads promoter; Hobart Key, Sr., Marshall businessman; Mrs. W. C. Martin, Dallas newspaper correspondent; Phebe Kerrick Warner, Claude newspaper columnist; and Katie Owens Welder, Victoria rancher. These five positions represented geographical distribution across the state, Neff proudly noted, and the three females all strongly supported parks and recreation initiatives through the Texas Federation of Women's Clubs. Neff soon appointed his newfound friend Dave Colp chairman of the parks board, and the two agreed that women's groups would make ideal contacts for donations and ultimately for pressing legislators to fund a state park system.

Meanwhile Stephen Tyng Mather, director of the National Park Service (NPS) and its dozen western preserves, busily nourished a nationwide movement for state park systems. An ardent naturalist, Mather expressed dis may over an invasion of automobiles into his parks that wildly accelerated after the World War. "We have had, in the Yellowstone," he told a state parks group in 1922, "some sixty thousand people in a single season coming by automobile from every state in the union, from Texas, Maine, and California." Targeting both motor tourists and meddling congressmen who clamored to create their own national parks, Mather reasoned that state parks could serve as pressure valves for federal treasures like Yellowstone and Yosemite. American scenery that did not meet his exceptional standards for any new national parks might be preserved, and more freely attract tourists, as state parks.

Texas parks board chairman Dave Colp maintained spirited correspondence with Mather's National Conference on State Parks throughout the 1920s. Yet the conference's slogan for a roughly 500-acre "state park every hundred miles" failed to move Colp and Neff away from their pursuit of fifty-acre "small parks" and "beauty spots" as "waysides" for intercity motorists. Neff and parks board members attracted much publicity and some fifty small-park donations during several barnstorming motorcades into south, west, north, and east Texas towns. But a growing number of "large park" boosters in Texas—promoting the Davis Mountains as well as the Big Bend, the Frio River, Palo Duro Canyon, and Caddo Lake—grew frustrated with the State Parks Board and its failure to facilitate destination parks for summer vacationers. Thus, poorly lobbied and disinclined legislators received no solid proposals to acquire land for the large parks, and they refused to accept even the small donations—citing long-term management costs—until 1927.

That spring, with Neff employed in Washington, D.C., Colp survived a grueling Austin senate hearing on his small-park donation list and surprisingly emerged with twenty-three new "state parks" from Beeville to Van Horn (see Appendix B). He promised legislators and Governor Daniel James Moody that each park could survive through operation profits, and in fact a handful including Alto Frio and Hillsboro apparently thrived under local management. Of far greater significance, however, and with no participation of the State Parks Board, the same legislature passed a bill, introduced by Senator Thomas Bell Love of Dallas, instructing the highway department to develop the Davis Mountains State Park Highway. This project presented an intriguing compromise for the debate between small- and large-park enthusiasts, projecting an eighty-mile scenic loop into the mountains west of Fort Davis upon donated right-of-way.

Thereafter, Colp and his board repeatedly lost momentum to other state-park interest groups, as well as an inevitable rise of commercial auto camps and popular new "motels." Preparations in Houston for the 1928 Democratic National Convention, pushed by local leaders, brought impressive state-assisted improvements to San Jacinto State Park. And the approaching centennial of Texas independence inspired still larger budgets for all state historical parks under the Board of Control, plus the Alamo. During the 1931 legislature Colp, with incalculable help from Senator Margie Elizabeth Neal of Carthage, managed to secure important legislation for more concession deals on donated state parklands. He could take no credit that year, though, for creation of Goliad State Park, encompassing the old mission Espiritu Santo ruins; nor for reservation of state lands at popular fishing waters in Aransas County, to be called Goose Island State Park; nor for dedication of state property at Caddo Lake in deep East Texas as a "public park"; nor for a two-year contract signed by Palo Duro Canyon landowners with the local chamber of commerce to allow public access to the Panhandle's premier scenery for the first time.

In sum, these initiatives proved that in the decade following Pat Neff's proposal for a state park system, widespread community interest in parks emerged even at the remote frontiers of Texas. Unfortunately in 1932 the darkening clouds of national economic depression placed tremendous strains on government at all levels, and incidentally caused a dramatic decrease in leisure travel. Responding to the growing crisis, President Herbert Clark Hoover encouraged all governors to meet ballooning unemployment with "energetic yet prudent pursuit of public works." Texas Governor Ross Shaw Sterling dutifully signed a bill addressing the growing problem of transient workers drifting into Texas cities. He encouraged hand labor as a substitute for machinery on the state's own public works projects, limited mostly to highway construction and university buildings.

In late summer Congress declared an emergency and approved distribution of funds from the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation to states and counties for direct relief. At the same time, the momentum of discontent brought Hoover's presidential opponent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to the forefront of public attention. Promising sweeping and progressive changes in government and conservation practices to end this devastating depression, candidate Roosevelt broadcast over nationwide radio: "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people."

That election summer Dave Colp struck a sweetheart deal with the donation of land in Burnet County and a concession contract for development. This popular retreat known as Sherrard's Cave, complete with wooden dance floor underneath rolling limestone hills southwest of Burnet, compared favorably with Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, Colp bragged. On Thanksgiving Day—just after Roosevelt's election as president, to take office in March 1933—Pat Neff, now chief executive of Baylor University, delivered a dedication speech at the entrance of newly renamed Longhorn Cavern State Park.

Flushed with this single success, Colp next threw his energies to a favorite site, Palo Duro Canyon, and feverishly sought a federal loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation for visitor improvements there. Despite the depression, conditions must have seemed like a dream come true for Colp: good roads, cheap gasoline, federal funds, and a weary public desperately needing recreation! Fifty years after state acquisition of the San Jacinto cemetery, and ten years after the crusade for a state park system began, in midwinter at the approach of 1933, Colp should have been ready for the park development opportunities of a lifetime.



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