At 100 years, Panama Canal Zone history celebrated in Florida

TAMPA Fla. (Reuters) - The 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal, hailed at the time as one of the world’s great wonders, has inspired a celebration in central Florida to showcase the experience of the U.S. canal workers behind the engineering feat.

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Vintage photographs, rare maps and vibrant indigenous textiles are highlights of a museum collection assembled by the Americans who lived and worked in the Panama Canal Zone, a 436-square-mile (1,139-sq-km) area that spanned both sides of the shipping channel connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Their contributions, as well as Panama culture, are the focus of three days of events beginning on Friday at the University of Florida in Gainesville, which has acquired one of the largest and most diverse collections of Panama Canal history in the United States.

“The centennial is important because it brings to life a great achievement of the United States,” said Joe Wood, 77, who lived in the canal zone until he retired to Florida and helped found the museum collection. “It would have been considered the moon shot of its day,” he added.

Built by the United States in a 10-year construction effort after a failed French dig, the 48-mile-long (77-km-long) canal opened on Aug. 15 1914, instantly becoming a vital global trade route.

For much of the century, the canal zone was operated as sovereign U.S. territory by a proud community of “Zonians,” as many called the Americans living and working there. They had their own schools and housing, manning the canal and a series of U.S. military bases, yet many also embraced Panama’s culture as their own.

“Being a Zonian is something to be proud of,” said Richard Wainio, the former Port of Tampa chief executive who spent most of his life there. “Americans who were brought up in the canal zone absolutely loved Panama.”

Like many of his fellow Zonians, 64-year-old Wainio settled in the Tampa Bay region after leaving Panama, which took over the canal and the U.S. bases at the end of 1999.

The workers brought boxes of photographs, newspapers and eclectic souvenirs like giant Rhinoceros beetles encased in resin and a railroad spike - all pieces of history from the canal era.

To preserve the collection that grew to more than 16,500 objects, they organized the Panama Canal Museum, which the aging volunteers transferred to the University of Florida two years ago.

The university’s centennial celebration marks the launch of exhibits that will remain on display through the fall. Events include lectures, a concert and a family-friendly event on Saturday featuring traditional pollera dancers and storytelling.

Many photographs can be viewed online at

“We like to say that this collection came with a fan club,” said Lee Herring, communications assistant at the university’s George A. Smathers Libraries, which houses the collection.

“They are very passionate about their history,” she said.

Editing by David Adams and Sandra Maler