How Panama City Beach got started

Bridge to Panama City Beach

The story of how Panama City Beach got started.

The beaches in Bay County have a relatively short history as a tourist resort. There were visitors to the Gulf as early as 1909, but not on the same beaches where Panama City Beach is today. Tourists in those days took a motor launch to “Land’s End’, on today’s ‘Shell Island’. There wasn’t even a highway near the Panama City Beaches in the early days.

The earliest scenic road was the Gulf Coast Highway and in Bay County it was often several miles inland from the Gulf. The Gulf Coast Highway had very little traffic, because skirting around all the Bays on Florida’s Gulf coast added countless miles to a beeline transit of the coast. When the bridges were constructed over St. Andrew Bay, in 1929, it connected several sections of the old Gulf Coast Highway and became officially known as US HWY 98. Now, it was possible to access the beaches in an automobile. Fortunately, most of the cars of that era where very adept at driving over the sandy trails. Those trails led from the highway to the shore.

It was ‘the place’ to see and be seen.

The first person to successfully develop a tourist resort on Panama City Beach was Gideon Thomas. Mr. Thomas was a north Florida business man that possessed the vision to recognize the potential allure of the aqua-blue water and snow-white sands. Against the advice of his peers, in 1933, he purchased 108 acres of Gulf front and chartered the municipality of Panama City Beach. He constructed a two story hotel that he called the Panama City Beach Hotel. He also constructed a series of cottages. The secret of the success of Mr. Thomas’ venture was the 1000 ft pier that he constructed out into the Gulf. It was the most popular place in Bay County.

All during the day, and into the night, people gathered to stroll up and down the pier at Panama City Beach. It was ‘the place’ to see and be seen.  In 1936, Mr. Thomas had the grand opening of Panama City Beach. He hired Wallace Caldwell the Hollywood actor and star of ‘Killers of the Sea” to make a personal appearance and to stage fights with sea creatures, near the pier. Today, Thomas Drive is named after Gideon Thomas. Mr. Thomas once told his friends, “I’m going to raise people, not corn”. Today his vision has truly come true.

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