Panama City

  • Bay County
  • Year Founded: 1905
  • Founded by: G.M. West, R.L. McKenzie, A.J. Gay and A.B. Steele
  • Previously known as: Floriopolis in 1885, Park Resort in 1888, and Harrison in 1889


Panama City celebrated its centennial in 2009 but the town is actually a few years older than that. For centuries, the magnificent area that became Panama City languished alone and undiscovered along the shores of beautiful St. Andrew Bay. Except for the occasional fishermen, Indians and possible Spanish or pirates coming ashore, this entire area saw very little traffic or visitors. After Florida became a territory in 1821, Panama City’s first residents were squatters who occupied land wherever they desired. During the antebellum era, the section along what’s now West Beach Drive drew families in summer from the inland plantations of Jackson County.

The town continued to grow and on Feb. 23, 1909, a total of 34 registered voters approved the incorporation of Panama City. McKenzie was elected Panama City’s first mayor. Gay became president of the Town Council.

As late as 1913, Panama City and the surrounding area belonged to Washington and Calhoun counties. The legislature created Bay County on Apr. 24, 1913 and celebrated its founding on July 1, 1913. After a bitter fight for seat of government between surrounding towns, Panama City won by a majority of votes in 1914.

Real Estate Boom

In the midc1920s, the great real estate boom hit this section of Florida and prices soared but soon crashed. Bay High School and two big hotels, the Cove on St. Andrew Bay, and the 10-story Dixie Sherman, the town’s first high rise, were completed before the end of the decade. Until 1926, Millville and St. Andrews remained separate towns. Then by an act of the legislature on March 23 1926, they were incorporated into Panama City.

The completion of Hathaway and DuPont bridges in 1929 opened the area to development along the Coastal Highway (U.S. 98), this area’s first east-west highway.

In 1931, the International Paper Co. opened its first paper mill in Florida in Bay Harbor, a few miles east of Panama City. Shipments from the paper mill brought about the need for a deeper pass into St. Andrew Hay.

World War II

When war appeared inevitable, the government selected the East Peninsula for its aerial gunnery school in 1941 and named it Tyndall Field. The Naval Section Base was built near the west end of Hathaway Bridge, and Wainwright Shipyard was constructed on the east side of the bridge. A total of 102 Liberty ships and six tankers were built at the shipyard during the war. Panama City’s population soared from 20,000 to 60,000. Developers built the first Panama City Beach, Long Beach, Laguna Beach, Sunnyside and other beaches. Tyndall Field became Tyndall AFB, and the Navy Base became the U.S. Mine Countermeasures Station. The war changed Panama City forever by introducing millions of people to the snow­ white beaches, the Gulfs clear blue-green waters, and excellent weather in this part of the state.

Story of City’s Founding

When developers G.M. West, R.L. McKenzie, A.J. Gay and A.B. Steele were drawing up plans for what would become Panama City in 1905 they knew they needed a new name for their town. The Panama Canal was under construction at that time. Steele suggested changing the name to Panama City for the Panama Canal and the business he expected to derive from this port and the important waterway.

Key Historical Events

Event: In 1827
Event Description:

Ex. Georgia Governor John Clark moved to Old Town (St. Andrews) with his family and built a large log home.

Event: St. Andrews Bay Skirmish March 20, 1863
Event Description:

Confederate soldiers commanded by Captain Walter J. Robinson, repelled a landing by Union soldiers led by Acting master James Folger of blockading vessel U.S.S. Roebuck. Total Union casualties were 6 dead and 3 wounded. After the war the Union soldiers remains were buried at the cemetery at Fort Barrancas.

Event: Clarence Earl Gideon Case 1961
Event Description:

Gideon was denied a free lawyer because at the time a person accused of a non-capital felony did not have a constitutional right to a free lawyer. He was found guilty. 1963 the Court ruled everyone had a right to representation. He was acquitted at retrial.

Event: 1914
Event Description:

Panama City Became County Seat for bay County.