The Florida Panhandle is called “Lower Alabama” by many, and might as well be. Alabama and Auburn regalia on automobiles outnumbers that of Florida and Florida State, half the region gets their television news from Mobile and the area’s election results mimic those of the Birmingham suburbs more than Florida’s more populous regions, including Miami, Orlando and Tampa.
For a moment in time in 1869, the Florida Panhandle was almost sold to Alabama.
Then-Alabama Gov. David Lewis offered the Sunshine State $1 million for everything from where the Flora-Bama sits today to the Apalachicola River. And Florida almost took Alabama up on the offer.
In May 1869, three commissioners signed a cession agreement on behalf of the Alabama and Florida legislatures. Later that year, Panhandle residents actually got to weigh in on the matter — approving cession by a margin of 1,162 to 661 votes.
Following the referendum, the cession effort stalled out in the Florida Legislature. During the 1870-71 session, the Florida House of Representatives passed language to go forward on the sale. The effort failed in the Florida Senate. Pro-cessionists rallied the effort again in 1873, but failed to muster enough enthusiasm. And that’s why today West Florida remains part of Florida.
In the “woulda-coulda-shouldas” of history, the Panhandle purchase would have been a sweetheart deal for Alabama: a million bucks for roughly 5.7 million acres, which would have come out to be 17 cents an acre. In 2016, you probably couldn’t get a single beachfront home on the Panhandle’s coveted South Walton County on 30A beaches for $1 million.
For the sake of comparison, it’s not quite the deal the United States got for Alaska from the Russians at 2 cents an acre around the same time. At the time critics dubbed the deal Seward’s Folly because Alaska was thought to be nothing but a wasteland — this was long before the discovery of the region’s mineral wealth.
If you adjust for inflation, the price tag Alabama would have paid for West Florida would have been $1.8 billion in 2016 dollars. Think of what they would have gotten if the deal had passed: all of the so-called Redneck Riviera, which includes nearly 200 miles of coastline and the ports of Pensacola, Panama City and Apalachicola.
One of the biggest benefits for Alabama from a sale would have been the coastal mineral riches. From off the shores of Brownsville, Texas, near the Mexico-U.S. border all the way to the Florida/Alabama state line, oil rigs can be spotted all over the Gulf of Mexico.
Elected officials from Florida have been reluctant to allow drilling off its shores. Congress instituted a ban on offshore drilling within at least 125 miles of the Florida coast in 2006 that isn’t set to expire until 2022. If Alabama had control of those shorelines, it’s hard to imagine a similar ban would be in place, which could mean billions of dollars annually for the state’s economy.
The clincher for the public might have been what this million-dollar investment in the 1860s would have meant to high school recruiting for the football programs of University of Alabama and Auburn University. College football wouldn’t come to the state for another 23 years at the time of the proposed sale, and was 50 years away from being popular in Florida.
Had there been foresight for that to be a consideration, many Alabama taxpayers probably would have given it a thumbs-up. What if Pensacola’s Emmitt Smith and Fort Walton Beach’s Danny Wuerffel ended up staying in-state and had gone to the University of Alabama? The rough patch Alabama fans endured in the late 1980s and early 1990s might not have been so bad and the University of Florida might not have been the juggernaut it was throughout the 1990s under Steve Spurrier.
Politically the state would have gained some influence in the House of Representatives. All of Florida’s first congressional district, currently represented by Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, and part of the state’s second congressional district, currently represented by Democrat Rep. Gwen Graham, would be part of Alabama. So the state would have expanded its delegation from seven to eight or possibly nine.
One of the casualties might have been the closure of the military installations that have been a big part of the Panhandle’s economy. Many Mobilians know how the closure of Brookley Air Force Base in the 1960s crushed the local economy. Many saw the Brookley closure as punishment for Alabama voters pulling the lever for Barry Goldwater instead of Lyndon Johnson during the 1964 presidential election. Florida went for Johnson, but if the territory had been in Alabama’s hands, would U.S. Navy assets in and around Pensacola have survived closure? Would Eglin and Tyndall air force bases still be there?
More recently, the country could have been affected in an even bigger way. Without the Panhandle, Florida likely would have gone for then-Vice President Al Gore instead of George W. Bush. That would have probably meant President Al Gore in 2000 when all was said and done.
If that had happened, things almost certainly would be different today.
Then-Florida Gov. Harrison Reed didn’t see $1 million as the right price tag in 1869. What might have been enough? A $1.5 million offer? And why didn’t Alabama up the ante?
If they knew now what they didn’t know then, it probably would have been a no-brainer.