The Neches River rises just east of Colfax in eastern Van Zandt County (at 32°30' N, 95°45' W) and flows southeast for 416 miles to its mouth on Sabine Lake, on the northeastern edge of Port Arthur (at 29°58' N, 93°51' W). Except for a few miles near its head, the Neches for its entire length serves as a boundary stream, forming the county lines between Van Zandt and Smith, Smith and Henderson, Henderson and Cherokee, Cherokee and Anderson, Cherokee and Houston, Houston and Angelina, Angelina and Trinity, Angelina and Polk, Angelina and Tyler, Tyler and Jasper, Jasper and Hardin, Hardin and Orange, and Orange and Jefferson counties. Two major reservoirs are located on the Neches: Lake Palestine just north of Cuney, and Lake B. A. Steinhagen near Town Bluff. A small reservoir, Rhine Lake, is located above Lake Palestine. The Neches has a drainage area estimated at 10,011 square miles. Abundant rainfall in the basin results in a flow of some 6,000,000 acre-feet per year. Major tributaries include the Angelina River, which drains one-third of the basin area, Bayou La Nana, Ayish Bayou, Pine Island Bayou, Village Creek, Kickapoo Creek, and Flat Creek. In 1980 the population of the Neches River basin was reported at 506,300. Tyler is the largest city in the basin; other cities include Beaumont, Lufkin, and Nacogdoches. In its upper reaches the river traverses rolling terrain surfaced by deep sandy loams, loamy sands, and sand. Loblolly, longleaf, and shortleaf pine, post, southern, red, and white oak, and flowering dogwoods grow throughout the region. Cottonwood, hackberry, pecan, blackgum, and blackjack oak are scattered throughout the area. A variety of native grasses is also found, including little and big bluestem, Indian grass, switch grass, and Virginia wild rye. In its lower reaches the Neches flows through generally flat terrain with a substrate composed of sand, gravel, and mud. Vegetation in this region consists largely of water-tolerant hardwoods, conifers, and grasses. High rainfall rates produce frequent flooding of low-lying areas, and large floods occur on the average every five years. Floods in the basin are often of long duration.
The Neches River basin has long been the site of human habitation. Archeological excavations have discovered evidence of all stages of southeastern Indian development, beginning with the 12,000-year-old Clovis culture. Indian development reached its peak after the arrival of the Caddos about A.D. 780. The early Caddoan Period, lasting until about 1260, saw the development of Mound Prairie in Cherokee County, the southwesternmost example of the Mississippian mound-building culture. In the Late Caddo Period Mound Prairie was abandoned, but numerous sites show a continuing Caddoan presence in the area until the beginning of the historical era. When the first Europeans entered the area in the sixteenth century, they found various tribes of Hasinai Indians of the Caddo Confederacy living along the upper reaches of the stream, which they called Snow River or River of Snows. The river is supposed to have been given its present name by Spanish explorer Alonso De León, who led several expeditions to the region in the late 1680s. De León dubbed the river Neches after the Neches Indians, one of the southern Caddoan tribes he encountered. On his fifth and final expedition in 1690 De León was accompanied by Queretaran missionary Fray Damián Massanet, who founded the first mission in Texas, San Francisco de los Tejas. The same year another Queretaran, Fray Predicador Francisco Casañas de Jesús María, founded the mission of Santísimo Nombre de María on the banks of the Neches, which he knew as "el Arcángel San Miguel." In 1691 Domingo Terán de los Riós, while exploring the region, reported that the Neches was a small stream, difficult if not impossible to navigate. In 1721, while exploring the region, an expeditionary force led by the Marqués de Aguayo found the river so swollen by rains that they were forced to halt their progress while a bridge thirty-two varas long and four varas wide was constructed, among the earliest bridges built in Texas.
A Río de Nievas, or River of Snow was noted by the Sevillian historian Francisco López de Gamarra in his Historia General de las Indias though the river he described was evidently not the Neches. Other Spanish maps from the early years of the eighteenth century called the river Río Mexicano, Río de los Tejas, or Río del Arcángel San Miguel. Many maps mislocated the Neches or confused it with the Sabine or other streams of the region. José Antonio Pichardo, who made a close study of the Louisiana-Texas boundary in the first decade of the nineteenth century, reported all of this past confusion, pointing out at the same time that the designations for the two streams-Neches or Río de Nievas for the western and Río de Sabinas for the eastern-had been well-established for years and that, when the Río Mexicano designation was used, it was only properly applied to the Neches. Between 1819 and 1836 an argument that the names of the Neches and Sabine had been confused on maps received considerable attention, especially in the United States (see NECHES RIVER BOUNDARY CLAIM, and SPANISH MAPPING OF TEXAS).
Despite the attempts of the Spanish to colonize the area, large numbers of Europeans did not enter the Neches basin until the 1820s, when Anglo-Americans from the southern United States began to settle there. When Mexican official Gen. Manuel de Mier y Terán was sent to the region in 1828 to report on conditions, he found that the ratio of Americans to Mexicans was nearly ten to one. Numerous hand-propelled ferries established along the river during the 1830s and 1840s helped open the area for settlement. Among these ferries were Clarks, Lovings, Fanns, Seamons, Allens, Martins, Shefields, Duncans, Boykins, Rawls, Aldridges, Jordans, Matts, Town Bluff, and others. On his first trip to Texas, Stephen F. Austin recognized the potential of the Neches as a means of transportation. In 1821 he wrote in his journal that he came to the "River Naches-This river...affords tolerable keel boat navigation from the mouth of the Atouyaque down, & mouths in Sabine Bay." During the 1830s and 1840s flat-bottomed barges were used to float cotton and other agricultural produce down river to Sabine Bay, where it was loaded on larger ships for transport to New Orleans, Galveston, and other ports. The booming river trade on the Neches and the Sabine, which also empties into Sabine Bay, contributed to the rise of Beaumont and Port Arthur. The first steamships began to ply the river in late 1840s, when Robert and Moses L. Patton purchased the steamer Angelina. Other noted riverboats that served the Neches-Sabine basin included the Neches Bell, Pearl Rivers, Florida, Laura, Star, Katy, and Frankie. Because the upper reaches of the Neches were usually too shallow for steamers during the dry season, farmers had to haul their goods to Bunn's Bluff on the lower part of the river. As a result Bunn's Bluff developed into an important port with large warehouses and docks. The riverboats continued to navigate the Neches until the 1890s, but by the 1870s and 1880s the railroads had begun to replace steamboats as the most important vehicle of trade. The last of the large steamers, the Neches Belle, operated on the river from 1891 to 1894.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the upper Neches River basin was the site of intensive logging, and numerous sawmills were built along the banks of the river and its tributaries. Downstream, the broad Neches floodplain became the site of intensive rice culture during the early 1900s. After the Spindletop boom of 1901, the Neches basin also became the site of large-scale oil exploration. The growth of the oil industry led to the development of the Beaumont-Port Arthur-Orange metropolitan area as a major site for oil refining, processing, and shipping.
As a consequence of these developments, the once clean waters of the Neches have become increasingly polluted. Because more than 75 percent of the drainage area of the upper Neches River is forested, decaying vegetation produces natural pollution. Oil refineries and chemical plants have discharged ammonia, phenol, sulfides, heavy metals such as zinc and lead, and other chemicals into the river. Straightening and deepening of the lower reaches of the river to improve navigation have allowed salt water to back up into the estuary. Upstream diversions, particularly during the rice-growing season, resulted in the lower reach of the river being frequently composed entirely of treated municipal and industrial effluent. By the early 1970s more than 284,000 pounds of waste were being dumped in the river every day. Subsequently, efforts were made to clean up the stream. An areawide water-quality management plan was adopted for the Beaumont-Port Arthur-Orange area. But in the early 1990s the pollution problem continued, especially in the river's lower reaches.