Located in northwest Florida, Port Panama City is the seat of Bay County. Lying on the northwest shores of Saint Andrew Bay in Florida's panhandle, Port Panama City is about 34 nautical miles (55 kilometers or 34 miles by air) northwest of Port St. Joe and almost 100 nautical miles (143 kilometers or 89 miles by air) east-southeast of Pensacola. Port Panama City is home to over 36 thousand people.
Linked to the Gulf of Mexico by a manmade channel, Port Panama City is a deep-water harbor on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. The local economy is largely dependent on tourism and the United States military; however, shipbuilding, fishing, and manufacturing are important contributors. It is the biggest city between Pensacola and Tallahassee.
The area of Saint Andrew Bay has long attracted human populations. Ice Age fossils of mastodon, mammoth, camels, and saber-toothed cats have been found along the waters that feed the Bay.
Archaeology evidence suggests that humans have inhabited the area around Port Panama City for some 13 thousand years. As long ago as five thousand years, inhabitants created mounds for burials. By 1300 years ago, temples were being built on the mounds, and the people traded with tribes as far away as New York and Minnesota.
When Spanish explorers arrived at the future Port Panama City in about 1500 AD, the Chatot and Yuchi peoples lived around Saint Andrew Bay. The Chatot quickly became extinct after Europeans arrived, and the Yucci escaped to the west and north. Two centuries later, Creeks and Cherokees had moved into the Port Panama City area. By the 1830s, after the famous Trail of Tears, the Seminole Nation was the dominant tribe.
The first white settlement developed in the late 1820s after Georgia's Governor John Clark built a home in the Port Panama City area. The village (known as St. Andrew) was a small one, with residents making their living from producing salt, fishing, and providing lodgings for vacationers.
By the middle 19th Century, Port Panama City's St. Andrews village had a population of about 1500 during the summers. The old Clark home had been converted into a hotel. Port Panama City was an important supplier of salt for the Confederacy during the American Civil War, making it a Union target. Union troops made several raids on Port Panama City and destroyed the town in 1863.
By the late 1870s, new buildings appeared at the old site of Port Panama City. The Ware brothers created the Ware Mercantile and Ware's Wharf. The town blossomed again, as shipping, boat-building, and salt production providing a living for residents.
The St. Andrew Bay Railroad, Land, and Mining Company (known locally as the Cincinnati Company) ran a mail-order real estate business offering 7.6-by-25-meter (25-by-82-foot) lots for $1.25. The low price grew to $8 per lot before the real estate business closed. Some of the buyers decided to stay in what would become Port Panama City.
Developer G.M. West created the modern Port Panama City in 1906. The early port contained simple piers used by commercial shipping companies, a city jail, and a post office. Businesses began to grow to the north.
Up until 1937, the Tarpon, a cargo ship that traveled between Apalachicola and Mobile delivered flour, beer, and other general supplies to St. Andrew and Port Panama City. In 1937, the Tarpon sank off the beach of Port Panama City. Today, that wreck is an underwater archaeological preserve.
Port Panama City grew steadily. In the first decade of the 20th Century, the Panama City Pilot newspaper began printing, a school was built, and local churches appeared. The Atlanta and St. Andrew Bay Railroad connected Port Panama City to cities to the north. In 1909, Port Panama City was incorporated.
In the second decade of the 20th Century, Port Panama City continued to add banks, a public library, phone service, an ice plant, and electricity and city lighting. In 1913, Port Panama City was made the seat of the new Bay County.
In 1927, Port Panama City annexed St. Andrews and three small towns. It was soon an important port and a ship-building center. During World War II, Port Panama City's ship-building and dismantling function brought a considerable military presence. Movie star Clark Gable enjoyed the local restaurants.
The first skyscraper in the Port Panama City area was completed in 1926. The first waterfront improvements were undertaken in the late 1930s when the city added a seawall, a dock, a civic center, and a turnaround.
In January 1939, the first deed was executed in Port Panama City for the construction of the Panama City Shipbuilding Corporation. From 1942 until the end of the war, the ship builders produced and launched 102 Liberty Ships and six tankers, employing as many as 30 thousand people.
The Florida Legislature created the Panama City Port Authority by a special act in 1945. The effort to dismantle the World War II Liberty Ships continued into the 1960s, although Port Panama City began leasing facilities from the federal General Service Administration in the 1950s. In the 1960s, Port Panama City purchased the ship-building property from the United States Government.
By the middle 20th Century, Port Panama City was a busy city with shops, restaurants, and charter boats. In the late 1980s, the Port Panama City Commission focused on making the old St. Andrews an attractive waterfront community and Port Panama City a popular tourism destination.
In 1967, the Port Panama City's first deep-water berth and a warehouse covering almost an acre were built. In the last half of the 1900s, the city started revitalization and redevelopment efforts. A new marina was added in 1957. In 1974, the Downtown Improvement Board was created. In 1999, the new sidewalks, lighting, landscaping, and a new modern look were created by the Streetscape Project.
By the end of the 20th Century, Port Panama City had gained 1.2 thousand meters (3900 feet) of deep-water bulkhead, eight acres of warehouse space, and eight kilometers (five miles) of railroad track. Today, Port Panama City tenants include government agencies, shipping agents, warehouse operators, stevedores, and other maritime-related interests.