The Panama Pacific Exposition Commemorative $2 ½ piece was one of a group of five coins minted to mark the celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal in 1915. In addition to the gold $2 ½ dollar there was a silver half dollar and Gold $1 pieces of standard size for the denomination and two massive $50 gold piece in both round and hexigonical format (these coins are discussed elsewhere).
The set of Panama Pacific coins was authorized by congress on 16 January, 1915. The coins were intended to help offset the cost of the exposition planned to be held in San Francisco that year. While the exposition was nominally to celebrate the opening of the Panama canal the previous year, the choice of the local was calculated to show off the re-birth of San Francisco after the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire.
The act that authorized the $2 ½ gold coin set the total mintage at 10,000 pieces. Eventually 10,017 pieces (including 17 held for assay) were minted, but not all sold. On 30 October, 1916 the Mint at San Francisco melted the 3,268 remaining coins leaving a net mintage of 6,749.
The design was executed in house at the mint as with most of the other coins in this set. Chief engraver Charles E. Barber handled the Obverse, while assistant engraver George T. Morgan executed the reverse.
The Obverse design is an allegorical reference to the importance of the Panama Canal. Columbia (not Ms Liberty) rides sidesaddle on a Hippocampus (mythical half Horse/half sea monster). She carries a Caduceus (universal symbol of medicine) as a tribute to the medical advances that conquered Yellow fever and Malaria (two maladies that had defeated previous attempts to build the canal). The Hippocampus as a hybrid of land and see animals carrying Columbia represents the marrying of Land and sea transportation methods through the newly opened canal. The only inscriptions on this side of the coin are the words “PANAMA-PACIFIC•EXPOSITION” arcing along the rim from 9 o’clock to about 4 o’clock, and the date “1915” in a straight line across the bottom. The “S” mint mark appears to the right of the date.
The reverse is dominated by a very fierce and realistic Eagle, with wings partially spread and raised walking to the left atop a standard that resembles a roman legionary standard. The standard is topped by a bar or plaque inscribed with “E∙PLURIBUS∙UNUM”. Beneath the standard is the denomination rendered as “2 1/2 “ to the left of the standard pole and “DOL∙” To the right. The inscription “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” arcs along the rim from about 8 o’clock to about 4 o’clock.