History of Panama City

As a result of the English occupation of Florida between 1763 and 1783, a colorful local legend developed concerning the establishment of "Wells".   This town was said to have existed when England attempted to attract investors and settlers to Florida.  The king gave land grants to English colonists willing to move to this outpost and grow indigo.

During the early 1900s, newspaper editor George West romanticized this town in the Panama City Pilot.  West quoted several map sources and a Lt. Bonneycastle in Spanish America of 1815.  Bonneycastle listed Wells as a seaport on the west side of St. Andrew Bay.  West described the many old fields and the wild orange trees that remained at Dyers Point, the location he considered the site of the forgotten old town.

Historians of the present day, such as Niles Schuh, discredit Wells' existence, however.   In 1978, Schuh initiated a length investigation for the Bay County Historical Society on "The Possible Existence of a Settlement on St. Andrew Bay, Florida During the British Period."  Schuh consulted several other professionals familiar with the southeastern United States.  They suggested that floaters from Georgia backwoods who were Loyalist sympathizers during the Revolution may have moved to St. Andrew Bay during the Spanish period after 1781.  A small Indian village or the plantation of a settler may also have stood in these locations.  Schuh concluded that "no settlement called Wells existed on St. Andrew Bay during the British period in Florida."  It appears likely that an indication of a fresh water source or "wells" on an early map gradually became interpreted as a town location "when the marking was transferred from map to map."

During the 1840s and 1850s, planters prospered in Northwest Florida, and many of them constructed summer homes or cottages on St. Andrew Bay.  Mail carriers delivered weekly mail by horseback from Marianna, but the St. Andrew's Bay post office did not open officially until October 23, 1845.  The town listed a population that numbered more than 1,200 in summer.   Early residents and visitors included David R. Blood, W. C. Bryan, S. J. Baker, Billy Wynne, Felix G. Long, David Blackshear, Marmaduke N. Dickson, Messrs. Russ, Walter Robinson and others from Jackson County.  A Major Armstead and his family ran the tavern, or old Clark house, and a man named Fleishman operated one of the stores.   Those who died were buried in a cemetery now lost to development near the present Fortune Avenue and Thirteenth Street.

On March 3, 1845, the U.S. Congress admitted Florida as a state into the Union and granted public lands for school purposes.

A three-year drought in this area made St. Andrew Bay an excellent location for salt-making.  Salt became one of the Confederacy's greatest needs due to the blockade.  By 1862, St. Andrew Bay served as one of the most important salt-making areas in Florida.

While developers eyed St. Andrew in the 1880s, Samuel J. Erwin, Green B. Thompson, and Clark B. Slade took up homesteads on the land that would become Panama City.  C. J. Demorest and G. W. Jenks surveyed some of this property and platted it as the Town of Harrison on September 20, 1883.  This survey showed Harrison Avenue where it runs today.  The Harrison post office opened on the waterfront on January 14, 1889.   The financial panic of 1892 bought doom to this project and any interest in future land sales.  Harrison remained a small trading post where a total of four families resided year round.  The original owners retained rights to most of the land until the early 1900s.

The area's reawakening began in Millville when Henry Bovis, a French Canadian with lumber interests in Bagdad, Florida, surveyed the bay and seemingly inexhaustible surrounding forests.  Bovis constructed a mill at the head of Watson Bayou and called it the St. Andrews Lumber Co.  Those seeking work flocked to the mill town.  The Millville post office opened on September 20, 1899.

In 1904, service at the Harrison post office was discontinued and moved to Millville.

A. B. Steel, a Georgia lumber and railroad man, came to the bay late in 1904.  He marveled at the possibilities this section held as a shipping port and attempted to purchase large tracts of land.  When he encountered difficulties, he invested in timber tracks south of Dothan and on June 2, 1905, signed a contract to build a railroad to haul logs between Dothan and Cottondale.  But the idea of linking his railroad with the Gulf and Atlanta continued to interest Steel.

R. L. McKenzie and A. J. Gay teamed together with George West to develop Harrison into a port city.  Together, after West's retirement from the railroad in 1906, they mapped plans for their town.  The group formed the Gulf Coast Development Company.   Harrison was renamed Panama City for the Panama Canal under construction during that period.  The Panama City post office was established on July 16, 1906.   West began publishing his Panama City Pilot on May 30, 1907.

After borrowing funds from Coca-Cola founder Asa Candler, Steele completed the Atlanta & St. Andrews Bay Railway or Bay Line in 1908, and rapid development followed.  With a population of 600, Panama City was incorporated on February 23, 1909, after ballots from thirty-four qualified voters were cast.

In 1910, Henry Bovis sold the St. Andrews Lumber Co. to a foreign syndicate and it became known as the German-American Lumber Co.  Hundreds moved to Millville to work at this huge mill.  By 1910, Millville ranked as the bay's largest community, one that went on to produce many of this area's most influential sons and daughters.

Florida legislators created Bay County on April 24, 1913.  Panama City became the county seat in 1914.  The towns of Millville, St. Andrew, and Panama City were consolidated and became part of greater Panama City on March 12, 1926.

Once a little fishing village, Panama City, with a 1996 population of around 35,000, is now a resort town with industry. It is a manufacturing and tourist center, known for the production of paper, seafood, and chemicals. A community college is here, and Tyndall Air Force Base and a U.S. Navy coastal systems center are nearby. It is a popular Spring Break spot for college students.

This page created using excerpts from "Along the Bay - A Pictorial History of Bay County", by Marlene Womack (with permission from the author), published by Pictorial Heritage Publishing Company, ISBN 1-880373-05-X

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