The Florida Panhandle (also West Florida and Northwest Florida) is the northwestern part of the U.S. state of Florida, is a strip of land roughly 200 miles (320 km) long and 50 to 100 miles (80 to 161 km) wide, lying between Alabama on the north and the west, Georgia on the north, and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. Its eastern boundary is arbitrarily defined.
As is the case with the other eight U.S. states that have panhandles, the geographic meaning of the term is inexact and elastic. References to the Florida Panhandle always include the ten counties west of the Apalachicola River, a natural geographic boundary, which was the historic dividing line between the British colonies of West Florida and East Florida. These western counties also lie in the Central Time Zone (with the exception of Gulf County, which is divided between the Eastern and Central Time zones), while the rest of the state is in the Eastern Time Zone. References to the Panhandle may also include some or all of eight counties immediately east of the Apalachicola known as the Big Bend region, along the curve of Apalachee Bay.
Like North Central Florida, the Panhandle is more similar in culture and climate to the Deep South than to South Florida in the lower peninsula, being known for its conservative politics and "piney woods."
The largest city in the Panhandle is Tallahassee, the state capital, population 188,107 (2014). However, the largest population grouping is the Pensacola Metropolitan Area with a population of 474,081. The total population of the Panhandle, as of the 2010 Census, was 1,407,925, just under 7.5% of Florida's total population as recorded in the same census.
Emerald Coast, a term coined in 1983, refers in general to the beaches and coastal resorts from Pensacola to Port St. Joe,[Emerald_Coast 1] but is sometimes used to refer, by extension, to the Panhandle as a whole, especially west of the Apalachicola. Earlier designations include "Playground of the Gulfcoast" and the "Miracle Strip", especially for the area between Fort Walton Beach and Panama City. Coastal regions of the following counties (if not the entirety of the counties themselves) are usually included when referring to the Emerald Coast:
Coastal portions of Escambia County (namely Pensacola Beach) that lie on the western edge, and coastal portions of Bay County that lie on the eastern edge, are also regularly included when referring to the Emerald Coast, but with somewhat less regularity than the three aforementioned counties listed above. However, the agency providing water, sewer, and garbage collection services to unincorporated Escambia County, which is headquartered in Pensacola, is called the Emerald Coast Utility Authority.
The Forgotten Coast is a trademarked term coined in the early 1990s used to refer to the coastal portion of the Florida Panhandle extending from Mexico Beach or southeastern Bay County on the Gulf of Mexico to St. Marks on Apalachee Bay. It is usually not considered a part of the Emerald Coast, which lies directly adjacent to the west. Coastal regions of the following counties (if not the entirety of the counties themselves) are usually included when referring to the Forgotten Coast:
The Apalachicola River is the largest river of the Panhandle. It is formed by the junction of several rivers, including the Chattahoochee and the Flint, where the boundaries of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida meet. From there, it flows southward to the town of Apalachicola.
Major estuaries include, from west to east: Perdido Bay, fed by the Perdido River, which forms the western boundary of Florida; Escambia Bay and East Bay, fed by the Escambia River and Blackwater River, respectively; Choctawhatchee Bay, fed by the Choctawhatchee River; and St. Andrews Bay, fed by Econfina Creek. Pensacola Bay, a deepwater port, is formed by the joining of Escambia and East bays. The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, completed in 1949, traverses the lower Panhandle by means of bays, lagoons, sounds, and man-made canals. The barrier islands of Perdido Key and Santa Rosa Island extend from the Pandhandle's western extremity to Fort Walton Beach.
Throughout the 19th century, the Panhandle was sparsely populated, dotted in places with small farming communities, none of which had as many as a thousand residents. Many Panhandle residents had, in fact, migrated to the area from Alabama and had relatives there; it was also easier to trade with and travel to southern Alabama than to reach East Florida by slow, arduous journey across the thick cypress swamps and dense pine forests of the Panhandle. It was natural for West Floridians to feel that they had more in common with their nearby neighbors in Alabama than with the residents of the peninsula, hundreds of miles away.
In 1821, Pensacola was the only city (in 19th-century terms) in West Florida, with a population estimated to be about 3,000. In the 1850 census, the enumerated population of Pensacola was 2,164 (including 741 slaves and 350 "free Negroes").
The building of the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad, completed in 1883, finally linked Pensacola and the Panhandle solidly with the rest of the state and ended the region's isolation, although from time to time during the twentieth century there were still occasional calls for annexation that generated some public discussion but no legislative action.
In the last quarter of the century, hurricanes that directly struck the area and caused significant damage included Hurricane Eloise in 1975, Hurricane Kate in 1985, and Hurricane Erin and Hurricane Opal, both in 1995.
The area was a prime target of the March 1993 Storm of the Century.
The Panhandle suffered direct hits from Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and Hurricane Dennis in 2005. Ivan was the most disastrous, making landfall near Gulf Shores, Alabama, with 120 mile-per-hour (193 km/h) winds and a 14-foot (4.3 m) storm surge that devastated Perdido Key and Santa Rosa Island, wrecked the Interstate 10 bridge across Escambia Bay, and destroyed thousands of homes in the region, some as far away as 20 miles (32 km) inland.
On October 10, 2018, the Panhandle suffered a direct hit from Hurricane Michael, with winds as high as 160 MPH. Michael was one of only four category 5 hurricanes to ever hit the US mainland. Thousands of homes were destroyed, and apartment rents in Panama City increased, with a $500 apartment renting for $1000 in 2019. Recovery from Hurricane Michael was not complete in June 2019, and disaster relief for the Panhandle remained stalled in Congress.
Historically, the economy of the Panhandle depended mainly on farming, forestry and lumbering, paper mills, import/export shipping at Pensacola and to a lesser extent at Panama City, shipbuilding, and commercial fishing. After World War II, the economy was boosted by the numerous military bases established in the region, as well as the growth of tourism and the hospitality industry.
In addition to military bases, state and local governments, hospitals, schools, and colleges, major private employers in the second half of the twentieth century included Monsanto and Westinghouse plants at Pensacola, the St. Joe Paper Company in Port St. Joe, and Gulf Power, a major electric utility company.
Unlike central and southern Florida, the Panhandle has never been a producer of citrus crops because the area is subject to regular frosts and freezes in wintertime, which destroy citrus fruits.
Interstate 10 is the only interstate highway in the Panhandle, connecting the extreme west with North Florida and Jacksonville. Other older east-west routes include U.S. Highway 90 and U.S. Highway 98. Important north-south routes west of the Apalachicola River include U.S. Highway 29, U.S. Highway 331, and U.S. Highway 231, all linking to Alabama and Interstate 65. State Road 20 stretches from Niceville to Tallahassee.
Freight service is provided by the Class III Florida Gulf & Atlantic Railroad, which acquired most of the CSX main line from Pensacola to Jacksonville on June 1, 2019. (For the history of this line, see Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad.)
Passenger service ended with the creation of Amtrak in 1971, but was revived with the extension of the Sunset Limited to Orlando beginning in 1993; however, passenger service was discontinued after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. Other regional short-line railroads serving the Panhandle are the Alabama and Gulf Coast Railway (formerly BNSF Railway, ex-Frisco Railway), the Bay Line Railroad, and the AN Railway.
Major airports include:
The following institutions of higher learning are located in the Panhandle.
State University System:
Florida College System:
The politics of the Florida Panhandle vary considerably depending on location. The western Panhandle, particularly the Emerald Coast, was one of the earliest areas to shake off its Yellow Dog Democrat roots, and since the 1990s has become the Republican area of Florida. Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach, Destin and Panama City regularly give Republicans close to or over 70% margins in state and national elections. However, Tallahassee and Gadsden County tend to be strongly Democratic. In the 2008 Presidential election, John McCain received 421,287 votes (60.1%) in the Panhandle, while Barack Obama received 279,206 votes (39.9%).
The following counties west of the Apalachicola River are always included in references to the Panhandle:
Some or all of the following counties east of the Apalachicola, in the Big Bend subregion, are sometimes considered part of the Panhandle:
Places marked with an asterisk (*) lie east of the Apalachicola River, and may not be considered part of the Panhandle by some residents or writers.
Population of the major metropolitan areas in the Panhandle:
The stunning sugar-white beaches of Gulf Islands National Seashore are composed of fine quartz eroded from granite in the Appalachian Mountains. The sand is carried seaward by rivers and creeks and deposited by currents along the shore.
The beach towns in the Panhandle, many of which play host to college students during spring break, are sometimes derisively called the Redneck Riviera. The term was used as the title of a song by country music artist Tom T. Hall on his 1996 album Songs from Sopchoppy. The album takes its name from a town in rural Wakulla County, near Tallahassee.
Tourists have been drawn to the Panhandle since the building of the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad in the 1880s. Pensacola Beach has been a major tourist attraction since the building of bridges between the mainland and Santa Rosa Island in 1931. After World War II, an increase in both tourism and population of the area led to a proliferation of motels, restaurants, bars, tourist attractions, and amusement parks along the coast, concentrated in Pensacola Beach, Fort Walton Beach, and Panama City Beach. Examples include the Gulfarium marine park and aquarium in Fort Walton Beach, and the former Miracle Strip Amusement Park (1963-2004) in Panama City Beach.
In 1971, the federal government acquired many acres of the coastal islands in Escambia, Santa Rosa, and Okaloosa counties, preserving them from commercial development by establishing the Gulf Islands National Seashore, which also covers some islands off the Mississippi coast. Other beach areas protected by the state of Florida include
Both state and federal parks offer facilities for camping, picnicking, and other recreational pursuits. In addition, some parts of the coastline are federal property belonging to Pensacola Naval Air Station, Eglin Air Force Base, and Tyndall Air Force Base, and so are likewise protected from commercial development.
In addition, seven state aquatic preserves, covering thousands of acres of submerged lands in coastal areas, are located in the Panhandle. A number of other state parks, preserves, and forests are located inland.
The 1970s also saw the beginnings of a number of upscale beach resorts, condominium towers, vacation homes, and planned communities, such as Seaside and Sandestin, so that most of the privately owned areas of the coastline are now heavily developed.
Major military bases include the Pensacola Naval Air Station (the home of Naval Aviation in the United States), Eglin Air Force Base and Hurlburt Field near Ft. Walton Beach, Naval Support Activity Panama City in Panama City Beach, and Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City.
The 1983-84 television show Emerald Point N.A.S. was set in a naval air station somewhere in the American South, similar to Pensacola NAS. The 1997-2000 action/adventure series Pensacola: Wings of Gold was explicitly set there.
Grayton Beach State Park is among the priceless natural treasures of Florida's Emerald Coast.