Panama City Florida History
There is more to Panama City and its beaches than white sand and bikinis… it may take some time to discover, but here is a place filled with history… a rich history that contributes much to its character…
Before modern settlement began in the 1800s, the St. Andrews Bay area was home to Native Americans. Then, as today, the abundant fish in the Gulf of Mexico and St. Andrews Bay provided fresh seafood to those original locals and visitors to the sandy white shores. In the 1500s, Spanish explorers discovered the Bay on the day dedicated to the patron of fisherman, Saint Andrew, and gave the Bay its present name while they explored the Northeast Gulf coast. Pirates also found the deep pockets of the Bay to be a prime spot to lie in wait for richly laden European ships traveling to Mexico or Spain. During the construction of a motel in the early 1960s, an old Spanish galleon and 700-pound cannon were unearthed, proving the presence of such pirates… and opening the door to the possibility of pirate treasure!
Until the purchase of this land by the U.S. in 1819, it was a “no man’s land” for runaway slaves and Native Americans. General Andrew Jackson was infuriated by the lawless nature of the place and brought national attention to the area when his army marched through on their way to New Orleans. Jackson was the first American to survey St. Andrews Bay, and his army spent considerable time here. Many of his soldiers and officers would later return to the area permanently when the territory opened for settlement in 1821. Relocating the Native Americans became a controversy that plagued the area until Jackson signed the Indian
Removal Act in 1830. “Old Town” St. Andrews was established about this time. It didn’t take long for the appeal of the deep water harbor to realize its potential. In 1825, St. Andrews became a “Port of Entry” for the shipment of cotton, cattle, beef, pork, lard and lumber headed to the markets of foreign countries. In exchange, commodities such as salt, sugar, and coffee were received. There were several times during this period when it was proposed to sell the panhandle to Alabama, but many residents threatened to dispose of their holdings rather than become Alabamians, so the panhandle was incorporated into the Florida territory. Shortly thereafter a state government was established by 1839, and in 1845, Congress admitted Florida as the 27th state of the Union.
By the 1840’s and 50’s, planters had discovered the abundant fertile land and built summer cottages and homes on St. Andrews Bay. By the mid 1840’s, a post office, a tavern and several small general stores existed. The 1860’s brought about The Civil War, and commercial growth was brought to a halt as loyal Confederate residents devoted their energies to the production of salt and salt fish for the Confederate Army. In retribution for the killing of two Yankee soldiers, federal forces completed destroyed the small Confederate stronghold of St. Andrews in 1862, leveling all 32 homes with a devastating fire. After the War, the valuable abundance of fish in the surrounding waters revived and developed the local economy. By 1879, two dozen families were once again thriving and living along the shores of St. Andrews Bay, fishing for Spanish Mackerel, Pompano, Trout, Redfish, Sheepshead, Bluefish and Mullet that served as the main fuel for the population growth of the area. The development of the Northwest Florida area that was incorporated into the current Panama City in 1909, started as an unincorporated settlement first called “Floropolis,” which became “Park Resort” and then “Harrison”, a name still assigned to Panama City’s major downtown thoroughfare. The city’s name was reportedly based on being the nearest American port to the newly opened Panama Canal. Surrounding the new city were other, small cities known as Panama City Beach, West Panama City Beach, Long Beach and Edgewater. The Gulf Coast Highway, (Hwy 98) was completed in the 1930’s, as well as the Hathaway, DuPont and Bailey bridges which connected the beaches to the cities of Panama City and Lynn Haven. The bridges made travel along the coast much more convenient, but beach property was still considered worthless. Few individuals realized the great natural asset of the soft white sand beaches.
In 1933, the U.S. Corps of Engineers began construction of the “New Pass” due to increased shipping and the need for deeper water access. The Pass was completed in 1934 and, by 1936, Panama City’s first tourist attraction had grown up. They called it Long Beach and lots were sold for $100 to $600; investors were urged to “profit while you play.” The Long Beach Casino opened a few years later, but beachfront property was still considered to be of little value. In 1935, developer Gideon Thomas built the Panama City Hotel. Thomas saw great potential in the area for tourism development at a time when most people were only concerned with harvesting crops. Many criticized his vision of Panama City Beach, arguing that there was no future in what they deemed “the ugly white sand.” Thomas told his critics, “I’m not attempting to grow vegetables here; I’m going to grow people.” The area’s first radio station, WDLP, went on air in 1938, and the 30’s saw serious tourism development for the first time. Even through the depression, Panama City and the beaches continued to grow slowly; the Washington News Daily stated “Panama City has a destiny as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow…” With the second World War came even more building blocks to the evolution of Panama City. Families, schools and churches were uprooted for the building of a gunnery school in 1941. This military installation was to be called Tyndall, named in honor of WWI ace lieutenant, Frank B. Tyndall. The 21st century proved to be momentous for Tyndall AFB. The base was selected as the first home of the Air Force’s newest aircraft, the F-22 Raptor. Today, Tyndall is the home of the 325th Fighter Wing, providing training for all F-22A Raptor pilots. Headquarters, First Air Force at Tyndall is part of the Air Combat Command (ACC), ensuring the air sovereignty and air defense of the continental United States. As the CONUS geographical component of the bi-national North American Aerospace Defense Command and air component of United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), 1 AF also provides airspace surveillance and control and directs all air sovereignty activities for the continental United States.
The war department also found St. Andrews an ideal harbor, with its two heavily-timbered peninsulas for protection and 200 miles of coastline. In 1942, a small installation was constructed across from Wainwright Shipyard where 102 Liberty ships and six tankers were built during the war. The base was recommissioned as a U.S. Navy Countermeasures Station in 1945. Renamed Naval Support Activity Panama City (NSA PC) in 2007, it houses Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division (NSWC PCD) andthe Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU) among other commands. NSWC PCD is a major research, development, test and evaluation laboratories of the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA). It is one of the largest employers in Bay County. NSA PC employs approximately 2800 civilian and military personnel. In addition to waterfront port facilities, the installation also contains a hangar and a paved heliport facility to accommodate naval helicopters up to and including the MH-53E Sea Dragon. Through the years, the face of Panama City and its beaches have continued to evolve and change. In 1971, Panama City Beach was incorporated combining the cities of West Panama City Beach, Panama City Beach, Long Beach, and Edgewater. Today, it is a premiere destination for visitors from across the world. Many come to bask in the Florida sun, play on the beautiful white sand beaches, and watch the same amazing sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico that travelers and locals alike have been treated to for thousands of years. Thanks to the sinking of modern day ships for artificial reefs, the Gulf of Mexico waters off of Panama City Beach are well known with sport divers, who find treasure of a different kind in colorful marine life and underwater adventure, prompting Skin Diver Magazine to dub the area the “Wreck Diving Capital of the Southeast.” In 2006, Panama City was also named the best place in the US to invest in real estate by CNN’s Business 2.0 magazine. Panama City Beach continues to grow and evolve making it a family friendly vacation destination, a popular winter haven for northern “snowbirds” and an overall great place to live year round.