The glittering, triumphant Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 was a monumental event. Officially thrown to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, the expo was also a chance for a rebuilt San Francisco to display its recovery from the devastating 1906 earthquake—one of America’s worst natural disasters.
Constructed over a 635-acre site, the expo showcased a number of marvels: a science museum called the Exploratorium, the Palace of Fine Arts, a five-acre working model of the Panama Canal that took two years to construct, a Ford assembly line that produced a new car every 10 minutes, transcontinental phone calls, and a recreation of the Dayton Flood. The original “Sun-Maid Girl” even took to the skies in a 10-minute hydroplane flight during which she showered the admiring crowd with raisins.
The expo’s most lasting physical mementos are available today in a form you can own: commemorative coins. Congress authorized the San Francisco Mint to strike a series of five commemorative coins for the fair: a half dollar, gold dollar, a $2.50 coin (“quarter eagle”), an octagonal $50, and a round $50. The $2.50 coins were the first commemoratives ever created in that denomination.
Charles Barber, the U.S. Mint’s chief engraver, created the $2.50 coin’s obverse design, featuring Columbia riding a hippocampus across the waters of the canal. Columbia, a female personification of the United States, has appeared in American poetry, paper currency, coinage, and statuary. The $2.50 coin’s incarnation of Columbia holds a caduceus, a symbol of medicine, to represent medicine’s success against yellow fever. The U.S. government and Army’s eradication of yellow fever in Panama allowed for the completion of the Panama Canal. The hippocampus is a mythological creature with the upper body of a horse and the lower body of a fish. “PANAMA-PACIFIC EXPOSITION” and “1915” appear on the obverse.
George Morgan, designer of the famous Morgan Dollar, created the reverse design: an eagle atop a Greek column. The eagle may refer to the necessity of the Panama Canal remaining open during World War I. “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,” “E PLURIBUS UNUM,” and “2 ½ DOL” appear on the reverse.
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