Mintage: 25,034 ($1), 10,017 ($2.50), 1,510 ($50 round), 1,509 ($50 octagonal)
Distribution: 15,000 ($1), 6,749 ($2.50), 483 ($50 round), 645 ($50 octagonal)
Weight: 1.67 grams
Mints: San Francisco
Designers: Charles Keck ($1), Charles E. Barber & George T. Morgan ($2.50),
Robert Aitken ($50 round and octagonal)
The Panama Canal is considered one of man’s greatest achievements. It is 51 miles long and allowed travelers to circumvent the 8,000 nautical mile journey between the Atlantic to Pacific oceans. The French tried to make such a canal several times, but it was the United States that succeeded. In 1902, Congress passed the Spooner Act, which authorized construction of the canal. President Theodore Roosevelt could not get the government of Columbia to agree to the canal, so he persuaded for Panama to declare its independence so that authorization for the canal would be given. The eventual success of the canal was marked with the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair held in San Francisco in 1915. The $50 million expedition drew almost 19 million attendees over the course of 9 months. The United States Mint created five commemorative coins in four denominations to be sold at the celebration. This was the most diverse range of coins ever made for such an event, especially because it was the first occasion when coins were done in both gold and silver.
Farran Zerbe, an avid numismatist and the former president of the American Numismatic Association, was put in charge of coinage for the exposition. Zerbe suggested that the coins be minted, both to promote coin collecting as a hobby and to help subsidize the fair. He also assisted with the sales of the coins at the fair. The appropriations bill allowed up to 200,000 silver half dollars, 25,000 gold dollars, 10,000 gold quarter eagles, and 3,000 $50 gold pieces, half of which were round and the other half of which were octagonal.
The federal Commission of Fine Arts suggested that the Treasury Department use outside artists to design the coins, so sculptor Charles Keck was selected to design the gold dollar. Keck’s original design carried a portrait of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, but Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo decided it was too intricate for such a small coin. As such, Keck made a second design that showed a typical laborer on the Panama Canal. All of the Pan-Pac coins were struck at the San Francisco mint, and on this coin the mintmark appears between D and O in the word DOLLAR. The coins were sold in three-, four-, and five-piece sets, as well as individually, in leather cases. Five- and ten-piece sets were also available in copper frames. Only 15,000 were sold, mostly to non-numismatists. The public often mistreated the coins, turning them into jewelry and decorations. As such, modern coin collectors treasure the coin because of its rarity, especially in high grades. Because several counterfeits exist of this coin, authentication of any Pan-Pac gold dollar is recommended before purchase.
For the quarter eagle, a sculptress named Beatrice Longman was chosen to design, but was stricken with illness after only a few sketches. As such, Charles E. Barber and George T. Morgan were chosen to replace her. Barber put a portrait of the goddess Columbia riding a hippocampus, a mythological sea horse on the obverse. She is shown holding a caduceus, a symbol of medicine, to mark the triumph of medicine over the yellow fever that plagued canal workers. All Pan-Pac coins were struck at the San Francisco Mint and the mintmark on the quarter eagle appears to the right of the date. Although 10,000 coins were struck, 3,251 were minted. As such, only 6,749 survived. Very few high-grade examples of these coins exist, as most were sold to the public in attendance at the exposition. There are several known counterfeits, which are weakly struck and, as such, show much damage.
Sculptor Robert Aitken was selected by the Treasury Department to design the $50 piece, despite having no previous experience designing coins. He used a significant amount of Roman imagery, causing several critics to claim his design was not American. His design involved the Roman goddess Minerva and an owl, both symbols of wisdom, in an attempt to display “the larger meaning of the Exposition, its appeal to intellect.” Minerva’s helmet is pushed back as a symbol of the United States’ peaceful stance towards World War I, which was ravaging Europe at the time. The owl stands for watchfulness as well as wisdom, signifying that the U.S. was paying attention in case Europe needed aid. The coins were well designed, but sold poorly. Only 645 of the octagonals and 483 of the rounds avoided being melted shortly after the conclusion of the exposition. Most of the remaining specimens range from AU-55 to MS-63, although uncirculated double sets do exist and are highly sought after.