This small museum is the world’s only one devoted to the Panama Canal — chronicling the construction, operation and maintenance in the former Canal Zone.
At first Seminole might seem an arbitrary venue for a museum about a century-old, man-made waterway in another country. But the Canal is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, built with Yankee ingenuity, the “largest construction project in American history.” And through the years, before and after the Canal Zone was turned over to Panama in 1979, many employees (called “Zonians”) retired to the Tampa-St. Pete area.
The exhibits will be of interest to history buffs, starting with the pre-Canal era of Spanish and then French control, and then a period when a railroad made the journey across the mountainous isthmus. There are many photographs, a pair of commemorative plates from opening of the Canal in 1915, a Canal model, and other artifacts. The “American Era” lasted from 1904-1999, and retirees apparently held onto some interesting items.
On the oddity side, a couple of items are of note: a glass display case of insects collected from Panama — exotic beetles, locusts, spiders and other jungle-loving crawlies. There’s also a primitive Shriner doll, found left behind in the workers’ quarters.
The prize oddball artifact is probably Teddy Roosevelt’s spittoon. The Roosevelt visited the isthmus during the Canal’s construction in 1906, staying at the Tivoli Hotel. His brass spittoon — or cuspidor — is displayed under glass (discouraging spontaneous gobs).
While visitors are welcome, the museum is currently set up in an office suite. The plan is for the collection to move to the University of Florida in 2012.