The History of the Sponging Industry
The City of Tarpon Springs was established along the
Anclote River, where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico. The name of the city was inspired by the tarpon, a fish that
inhabits the nearby waters. Although
the details of how the name came to be are uncertain, several accounts attribute
it to early settlers who arrived in the area in the 1860s and 1870s.
Tarpon Springs became the first incorporated city on the
Pinellas peninsula on February 12, 1887. That
same year, the Orange Belt Railway arrived in the city, with the right of way
for the line being donated by Samuel Disston.
This advance in transportation changed the face of Tarpon Springs in many
ways by making it much easier to import and export both people and cargo.
The construction of Anclote Key lighthouse advanced transportation by
sea. With the advances in
transportation, Tarpon Springs became a popular winter resort for wealthy
Americans in the late 18th and early 19th century.
Sponges were discovered in the Florida Keys during the
1820s. A commercial sponging
operation was founded there around 1849. Long
poles were used to harvest sponges from the beds off the Keys.
Turtle fishermen from Key West discovered the sponge beds off the west
coast of central Florida in 1873 accidentally when sponges off the mouth of the
Anclote River snagged their nets. Spongers
came to the area to work the beds and some relocated to Tarpon Springs.
In 1890, John Cheyney, a Tarpon businessman, opened the Anclote River and
rock Island Sponge Company across the river from Tarpon Springs. During the
1890s, sponge-packing houses were built in the City, sponge presses were
installed and buyers moved to town. Gradually
the sponge business shifted its center from Key West, Cuba and the Bahamas to
Tarpon Springs. By 1900 the City
was considered the largest sponge port in the United States.
Greek immigrants expanded and refined sponging in Tarpon Springs. John Corcoris arrived in Tarpon Springs in 1896 as a sponge buyer from a New York firm. John Cheyney hired Corcoris and financed his early efforts to make the industry more efficient. In 1905, Corcoris introduced the first mechanized sponge fishing boat to Tarpon Springs and brought in 500 Greek divers from Kalymnos, Halki, Sumi, Hydra, Spetse, Aegena and other Greek islands. More immigrants soon followed and businesses were established to serve the Greek community including restaurants, candy shops, coffee houses and grocery stores. Sponge merchants and brokers then came to Tarpon Springs and their presence helped to create a well-integrated industry. They built boats, loaned money to boat owners and supplied tools and equipment to the entire sponge fleet. In 1906 the Sponge Exchange Bank was established and in 1908 the Sponge Exchange was founded. Profits from sponging also financed other businesses such as the Sponge Exchange Cigar Company.
The Sponge Exchange was an organized system established by the divers, boat builders, deck hands and buyers for buying and grading the sponges. The Exchange consisted of “cluvas” meaning storage bins, around the perimeter with an auction block in the center.
The adverse economy of Florida, following the collapse of the land boom in 1926 and a destructive hurricane, was also felt in Tarpon Springs. By the late 20s, Tarpon Springs felt the full effects of the Depression. The sponge industry managed to prosper during this period, however. Misfortune hit the industry later; in 1938 blight infested the sponge beds and many of the sponges died. The industry continued to grow however, and reached a height of 180 sponge diving boats before a red tide in 1948 wreaked further damage. Sponges slowly started to return in 1959, with the beds regaining full strength in the 1970s.
Fortunately the sponge beds have survived and the industry has seen a modest revival in recent years. Professional sponge divers still search the waters off the coast of Tarpon Springs, as deep as 150 feet, for sponges. Most of the sponge boats are owned and operated by people of Greek descent. Sponges from Tarpon Springs are sold all over the world.
Tourism has replaced sponging as Tarpon Springs’ major
economic activity. Thousands of
visitors each year come to the City to enjoy the outdoors, visit the Sponge
Docks, see professional divers in action and experience the Greek culture that
still permeates the City. Visitors
come to walk Dodecanese Boulevard and visit its unique Greek shops, buy sponges
and feast at restaurants serving traditional Greek fare and delectable pastries.
Many of the shops are owned and operated by the descendants of the
City’s first immigrants from Greece. It
is estimated that the sponge industry brings $2 million a year to the Tarpon
Springs economy and helps nurture a $20 million a year tourist industry along
with the City’s thriving antique and arts community.