Panama-Pacific International Exposition Gold Dollar
The Panama Canal ranks among the
greatest man-made marvels in the world—a 51-mile-long system of natural
lakes, excavated channels and locks that slashes up to 8,000 nautical miles
from voyages between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It was viewed as such an accomplishment that Uncle Sam marked
its opening with a gala world’s fair in San Francisco: the Panama-Pacific
International Exposition. And as
part of that celebration, the United States Mint issued five different
commemorative coins in four different denominations—the most diverse tribute
for any single event in the first hundred years of U.S. commemorative coinage
and the first in which coins were struck in both silver and gold.
The notion of building such a
waterway dates back as far as the 16th century, when Spanish conquistadors
conceived it as a shortcut to the treasure-laden lands along the Pacific coast
of the Americas. The first serious effort to transform that dream into a
reality took place under the auspices of a French consortium, the French
Panama Canal Company, which set out to build a canal in 1880.
The French, however, hadn’t sufficiently grasped the formidable
difficulties they would face. As a result, 10 years later they were forced to abandon the
project after losing the staggering sum of $287 million—a king’s ransom
and then some, in an age when laborers routinely earned well under $5 a day.
Like the Europeans, the United
States came to be keenly aware of the benefits it might reap from a Panama
Canal—particularly after the mid-19th century, when the California Gold Rush
opened America’s West to ever more intensive development and greatly
expanded shipping between U.S. ports on the East and West coasts.
New impetus for a canal came with the Spanish-American War of 1898, as
the U.S. took on a greater role in the global arena.
Congress responded in 1902 by passing the Spooner Act, which authorized
President Theodore Roosevelt to acquire the rights to build a canal and
proceed with its construction. Roosevelt
did so with characteristic relish and relentlessness. When Colombia—which
then had sovereignty over Panama—balked at the proposal, he engineered and
guaranteed a declaration of independence by the Panamanians and then arranged
a treaty with them for the canal.
Like the French before them,
American engineers were confronted by enormous obstacles.
Unlike the French, however, they didn’t have to face the worst
ravages of yellow fever: Research
a few years earlier by Dr. Walter Reed linking this deadly disease to the bite
of a mosquito had enabled sanitarians to keep it under control during
Completion of the canal coincided
almost exactly with the outbreak of World War I in Europe.
The war began officially on July 28, and the new canal opened to
traffic just 18 days later, on August 15.
Americans, however, were still three years away from direct involvement
in the conflict, and the Panama Canal was not only closer to home but also a
source of more immediate interest to many in this still rather insular
The San Francisco fair reflected
the nation’s exuberance over its remarkable accomplishment (as well as civic
pride over San Francisco’s renaissance following the earthquake and fire in
1906, which served as a second theme for the celebration).
The fair featured exhibits by 36 countries, 44 states of the Union and
territories, as well as such
attractions as a racetrack, a livestock building and an amusement midway. The
exposition cost about $50 million and drew an estimated 19 million visitors
during its more than nine-month run, which lasted from February 20 to December
The man in charge of
“Pan-Pac” coinage was Farran Zerbe, a former president of the
American Numismatic Association and a savvy showman who promoted numismatics
non-stop. Issuance of the coins to help finance the fair—and, in the
process, to showcase the hobby—was Zerbe’s idea, and this as much as
anything accounts for the scope of the program.
He also was deeply involved in their preparation and sale.
It wasn’t until January 16,
1915, the very eve of the fair, that Congress finally authorized the coins.
The enabling legislation called for a silver half dollar plus gold
coins in three denominations: $1, $2.50 and $50.
Mintage limits were set at 200,000 for the half dollar, 25,000 for the
gold dollar, 10,000 for the quarter eagle and 3,000 for the $50 piece, with
these 3,000 subsequently being divided equally between round and octagonal
Upon the recommendation of the
federal Commission of Fine Arts, the Treasury Department turned to outside
artists for help in designing the coins. It commissioned Charles Keck, a
well-known New York sculptor, to design the gold dollar.
Keck’s initial design carried a depiction of Poseidon, the god of the
sea in Greek mythology. This was rejected, however, by Treasury Secretary William
Gibbs McAdoo, who deemed it too detailed for such a diminutive coin. Keck then
fashioned a new design featuring a portrait of a typical Panama Canal laborer.
The workman faces left on the obverse of the coin, into the two-line
inscription UNITED STATES OF / AMERICA, with the date tucked below his chin.
The statement of value ONE DOLLAR is the central device on the reverse,
with dolphins above and below, symbolizing the joining of two oceans by the
canal. This is encircled around
the rim by the words PANAMA PACIFIC EXPOSITION–SAN FRANCISCO. Although the workman is sometimes mistaken for a baseball
player because of his cap, on the whole this coin’s design is generally
viewed with favor by coinage critics.
The dollars were struck (as were
all the Pan-Pac coins) at the San Francisco Mint. The S mintmark appears below the D and O of DOLLAR. The
maximum authorized mintage of 25,000 was struck (along with 34 pieces for
assay), but evidently, many fairgoers balked at the official price of $2 each,
as 10,000 pieces were subsequently melted, leaving a net mintage of 15,000
coins. The dollars were sold individually in envelopes imprinted with a
description of the coin, the designer’s name and the price — “$2.00—6
for $10.00.” The coins were
also included in three-, four- and five-piece sets in velvet-lined leather
cases and five- and 10-piece sets in copper frames.
After the exposition closed, the price was raised to $2.25 each.
The dollars remained available for years afterward, with a large
quantity in the possession of celebrated dealer B. Max Mehl.
As late as the 1950s, Mehl still had quite a few Pan-Pac dollars on
hand, many of which were sold to dealers Abe Kosoff and Sol Kaplan.
Pan-Pac gold dollars are not
difficult to locate in grades up thru MS-65, but since many of these coins
were mishandled by the public, relatively few survive in the higher mint-state
grades. Points to check for wear
are the peak of the laborer’s cap and the heads of the dolphins. Officially,
no proofs were struck, but the late Walter Breen stated in his Complete
Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins that there were unconfirmed reports of
one brilliant proof. Several
varieties of counterfeits are known to exist: authentication of any
questionable specimen is strongly recommended.
Diameter: 15 millimeters
Weight: 1.672 grams
Composition: .900 gold, .100
Net Weight: .04837 ounce pure