By Brenda Rees
Visions of travel, commerce, and land development gave rise to many cities along Northwest Florida’s Emerald Coast and inspired Bay County’s Panama City, which has been celebrating its Centennial Year in 2009.
“The railroad—that’s really what made Panama City,” said local historian and Panama City businessman Bob Hurst.
“The president of the railroad had a vision. He wanted a commercial link from Atlanta to South America and the Panama Canal being built at the time. That is where Panama City got its name,” Hurst said. A.B. Steele named his railroad the Atlanta and St. Andrews Bay Railway Company. There were several other railroads in the 1900s.
Hurst added, “We recently lost the railroad depot to development. It was such a symbol of Panama City.” Remnants were saved and stored.
During the centennial celebration, Panama City’s connections to the Panama Canal are being revived. The new Bay County airport may help connect Panama City, the Emerald Coast and Northwest Florida to the Panama Canal. Miami’s port is facing competition from the Emerald Coast’s plan to expand its port because those who use it would have a straighter path for shipping and could avoid Cuba.
In the early 1900s, tourism did not contribute much to the local economy, and the sparkling white beaches were not valued. As Elba Wilson Carswell notes in his book about Washington County, Tempestuous Triangle, beach property was quickly traded between counties as officials made statements like, “It is a misshapen tract of worthless land… ”
The only things that put a gleam in the eyes of early Panama City entrepreneurs and leaders, such as Robert Lee McKenzie, G.W. Jenks and C.J. Demorest, were commerce, railroads, shipping, land development, and trade.
Bay County, founded in 1913, had earlier been part of Washington County as well as historical land areas of Walton, Calhoun, Escambia, and Jackson counties. When Panama City was first incorporated on February 23, 1909, it was part of Washington County.
One of the earliest places associated with Panama City with a name that sounds European is St. Andrew. A 1719 map by John Senex shows “Bay St. Andrew.” The cartographer for this map also provided illustrations of “Wandering Indians and Man-Eaters.” Other maps published during the American Revolution depict the 14th and 15th English Colonies, West and East Florida, and show Bay St. Andrew.
Similar to what occurred in surrounding counties, a citrus industry developed around what is now Panama City, but hard freezes in 1894 and 1895 killed most of the groves in Northwest Florida.
The town of St. Andrews was incorporated in 1908. Millville was one of the area’s largest towns in 1910. St. Andrews and Millville were incorporated into Panama City in 1926. Another early Panama City name was “Floriopolis” platted by Clark B. Slade in 1888. George M. West purchased land along Beach Drive. A.J. Gay’s land is now Panama City Country Club in Lynn Haven.
Bridges built in 1929, such as the Hathaway Bridge, and others constructed in the 1940s after World War II changed Panama City.
Hurst, owner of The Appliance Center at 21 West Oak Avenue, knows Panama City history and is involved in its preservation and promotion. He gave me a quick walking tour of downtown Panama City. As we prepared to set out, we talked about Narvaez and Cabeza de Vaca and the failed 1528 Spanish expedition, which sailed out of the Panama City area on its way back to Mexico.
Then, we began our tour of historic downtown Panama City. One building of note was the Van Kleeck Building with a sign that reads “Bay County’s Oldest Hardware Store established in 1933.” Next, we strolled by soothing McKenzie Park fountain.
Cutting between buildings, we met Caspian Café’s owner, Moris Kouchek. Panama City’s past and future plans for international connections are reflected in this delightful restaurant specializing in Persian and Mediterranean cuisine.
Just a few steps from Caspian Café is a display prepared by Bay County Public Library’s Public History Room that showcases a map and plat of “Park Resort.” Its name was later changed to Harrison, after President Harrison, and it became Panama City in 1906. The display also explains that McKenzie Park was City Park and then Magnolia Park. We viewed photographs of Panama City Hall built in 1926 and the Bay Line Depot built in 1924.
We then stepped out onto 3rd Avenue, where the visitor can easily see a few moss-draped homes and trees surrounding a park and experience what Panama City was like when it was incorporated in 1909.
One of the historic homes guarded by ancient oaks is the McKenzie House. “R.L. McKenzie was Panama City’s first mayor and instrumental in getting Bay County started,” said Hurst. Panama City was still part of Washington County while McKenzie served two terms as a Florida legislator.
Across the park is the Jenks House, the oldest wood-frame building still standing in old downtown Panama City. The turret was added later, according to Hurst.
Just a few blocks away is the Joshua Mercer Sapp House built in 1916 and later restored by Lauren DeGeorge, according to the 2003 National Register marker.
To find out more about Panama City’s Centennial, go to www.panamacity2009.com. The Bay County Public Library, 898 W. 11th St., has a Local History Room open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The Centennial Committee sponsored numerous 100th birthday events, including a Centennial Year Proclamation at City Hall, the ringing of a bell bought in 1912 and now owned by the Bay County Historical Society, a POPS Centennial Concert and a Centennial Gala at the Marina Civic Center on Valentine’s Day. A birthday cake on February 23 celebrated the town’s incorporation, and there was a wine tasting in March. Numerous other events throughout the year highlighted this milestone for Panama City.
Becky Saunders, the expert on local history and genealogy at the Bay County Library, is Centennial Committee chairwoman. Centennial Committee working groups and chairs are: Educational, Janice Lucas; Community, Jennifer Jones; Special Events, Dutch Sanger; Tourism & Marketing, Bettina Mead; Historical, Marlene Womack and Bob Hurst; and Cultural, Stacey Fontaine.
Centennial Calendars (2009 through 2010) and other items are available for purchase at Hurst’s store and other Panama City locations. Beautiful scenes depicted in the historical calendar include “She’s Gone Sailing” by artist Michael Welch, which shows St. Andrew’s Marina facing Uncle Ernie’s Restaurant.
Relax and enjoy your visit to historic Panama City during this special Centennial Celebration year. Perhaps you might soon fly into the new Bay County airport and connect to a cruise to the Panama Canal in South America by way of Panama City of Northwest Florida and the Emerald Coast.
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Brenda Rees is a local historian and Walton County native. She holds a Florida Master Naturalist certificate, and is certified by the South Walton Tourist Development Council, presenting environmental and history programs through her business, Shaping Florida. Rees also holds degrees from Sam Houston State University and Texas A&M University and attended University of West Florida.