The history of Tarpon Springs begins around 1876 when the region, with a series of bayous feeding into the Gulf of Mexico, was first settled by white and black farmers and fishermen. Some of the newly arrived visitors spotted tarpon jumping out of the waters and so named the location Tarpon Springs. In the 1880s, it was developed as a wintering spot for wealthy northerners. The beautiful Lake Tarpon has some big tarpon jumping out of the water still!
The sponge business
The history of Tarpon Springs cannot be told without the sponge business. During the 1870’s, John Cheyney founded the first local sponge business. The industry continued to grow in the 1890s, and many blacks and whites from Key West and the Bahamas settled in Tarpon Springs to harvest and process sponges. A few Greek immigrants arrived in this city during the 1890s to work in the sponge industry.
In 1905, John Cocoris introduced the technique of sponge diving to Tarpon Springs and recruited divers and crew members from Greece. The first divers came from the Saronic Gulf islands of Aegina and Hydra, but they were soon outnumbered by those from the Dodecanese islands of Kalymnos, Symi and Halki. The sponge industry soon became one of the leading maritime industries in Florida and the most important business in Tarpon Springs, generating millions of dollars a year. The 1953 film Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, depicting the sponge industry, takes place and was filmed in Tarpon Springs.
Today’s active sponge industry
In 1947, a red tide algae bloom wiped out the sponge fields in the Gulf of Mexico, causing many of the sponge boats and divers to switch to fishing and shrimping for their livelihood, while others left the business. Eventually, the sponges recovered, allowing for a smaller but consistent sponge industry today. In the 1980s, the sponge business experienced a boom due to a sponge disease that killed the Mediterranean sponges. Today there is still a small active sponge industry. Visitors can often view sponge fishermen working at the Sponge Docks on Dodecanese Boulevard. In addition, visitors can enjoy shops, restaurants, and museum exhibits that detail Tarpon Springs’ Greek heritage.
In 2007 and 2008, the City of Tarpon Springs established Sister City relationships with Kalymnos, Halki, Symi, and Cyprus, honoring the close historical link with these Greek-speaking islands to the history of Tarpon Springs via the sponge industry.