Bay County History Museum unveils new exhibit


PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — Downtown visitors can now step back an entire century to 1917 when gas lamps lit up the streets and local roads were not yet paved.

The Bay County History Museum unveiled the exhibit “Panama City 100 years ago” on Tuesday morning.

Bob Hurst is the Vice President of the Bay County Historical Society and says things were a lot different back then.

“They had dirt roads, very few cars, no electricity,” he said. “People lived down here, it was a walk-able community back then.”

Hurst said 1917 was a booming time for the economy, mostly due to World War I.

“They invested in the railroad, they invested in this huge complex over here to the westside of the downtown and the depot area,” He said. “It was a port. The port was downtown and not at the shipyard where it is today.”

Even though the port isn’t downtown Panama City today, there are still monumental landmarks that call this historic area home.

“One [landmark] was what they call ‘Panama City High School’. I think the old timers today know it as Panama Grammar, but it was a high school back then.” He said, “And the other monumental building was the Courthouse. Both of them were built in 1914.”

Those monumental buildings also survived one of the first recorded hurricanes to hit the Florida Panhandle, before named storms existed.

Bay County Historical Society member Rebecca Saunders said there was even a book written about the hurricane through the eyes of two young Panama City girls on their way home from school.

“One of them lived in this house here in the cove,” Saunders said, “And then the other right here.”

1917 Hurricane track (Maps/NOAA)

The storm — originally headed for New Orleans — shifted northeast at the last minute and made landfall in Fort Walton Beach with winds of 110 mph.

“It’s a tremendous description of what happened.” Saunders said.

The surge also damaged some of the businesses near the water at that time, and thankfully there’s an extensive collection of pictures to show it.

“Our Bay County Public Library for years has been collecting photographs and has a really good local history collection.” she said.

Saunders chose the specific pictures for the exhibit because they add life to the map and show aspects of Panama City from 100 years ago that could be inspiration for the future, and Bob Hurst agrees.

“What inspired me to do something about this and write a text describing this is because of the interest we have today in improving our downtown and making it a walkable community,” he said. “And when I saw that I said ‘well, we had that 100 years ago!’

The exhibit is open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. and admission is free.

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