Part of the difficulty keeping the railroad workers alive was the lack of nutritious food. As a food source, Minor Keith became interested in a fruit that he had seen for sale in New Orleans…the banana.
He buys several hundred banana plants and has them planted along the railway. They become a welcomed source of food for the workers. In 1872, Keith begins to export small quantities of bananas to New Orleans.
Its rarity and tropical origin added to its allure and its cost. If you can afford to buy bananas you are most certainly well-to-do. Among the wealthy, bananas become a flaunted status symbol.
It is not uncommon for people to have formal photographs made where they are seen holding or eating the costly fruit.
In the meantime, Minor Cooper Keith is making headway with the trans-jungle railroad.
He proves equally adept at finance as well as railway construction. When the Costa Rican government is threatened with bankruptcy, in 1884, Keith travels to London to successfully renegotiate debts held by European bankers.
He returns to Costa Rican the hero of the people. He is awarded 800,000 acres of farmland and even marries Christina Castro, the President’s daughter.
Keith signs a new contract with the government that assigns his company full ownership of the completed railroad for 99 years. Construction of the railroad is finally finished in 1890.
By this time Keith is exporting over one million stems of bananas to New Orleans annually.
Shortly after the turn of the century, Minor Cooper Keith has established a virtual monopoly on the lucrative banana trade throughout the southeastern US.
Keith begins to search for a port on the Gulf of Mexico that would be better positioned to rapidly deliver the time-critical fruit.
Keith’s brother-in-law, W. H. Lynn, (the founder of Lynn Haven, who had also married a daughter of the Costa Rican President) brought to his attention the harbor at Saint Andrew Bay.
When Keith visited Saint Andrew Bay he fell in love with the area and began to invest in local infrastructure, including a railroad from Atlanta to Saint Andrew Bay.
In addition to the railroad, Keith purchased the area’s lumber mills and over two hundred thousand acres of land.
He also built both the Lynn Haven Hotel and the Pines Hotel in Panama City, the largest and finest hotels on Saint Andrew Bay at the time.
In one photo, Keith can be seen surveying a golf course he developed on North Bay.
In 1917, it was Keith’s Atlanta and St. Andrew Bay Railroad that help establish the tourist trade on what would become Panama City Beach.
Visitors rode passenger cars on the Bay Line to Panama City and then rented motor launches that ferried them across the Bay to the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico.
This remained the only way for tourists to visit local Gulf beaches until 1929 when the Gulf Coast Highway was completed by the construction of Hathaway Bridge across Saint Andrew Bay.
The bridge permitted automobile traffic to Gulf Beaches throughout Bay County and expanded the tourist trade that was begun by Minor Cooper Keith when he sought to expand his banana empire.
Today, Chiquita Banana is the modern embodiment of the same company that was started in the jungle by a brave young man over one hundred years ago.