Florida Waterfront Communities' Commercial Fishing Heritage
Tarpon Springs, named by the early inhabitants for the abundant tarpon fish found in nearby waters, has a rich and versatile history. It includes stories of Paleo-Indians, medicinal benefits of its mineral spring, and the discovery of sponges off Florida’s west coast that led to a profitable industry.
The first people to enter Florida some 12,000 years ago were the Paleo-Indians who were following big game animals as a food source. Two-thousand years later, the large ice age animals had disappeared. Sea levels had begun to rise and people known as archaic hunter-gatherers hunted modern animals that exist today. As their populations increased, they became more sedentary and formed settlements along the many rivers, lakes and newly formed estuaries. The first pottery was introduced about 4,000 years ago and a more elaborate social structure developed 2,000 years later. These descendants of the first Floridians sometimes buried their dead in earthen mounds along with elaborate pottery and other goods. One such mound, the Safford mound, was discovered in the late 1800s east of Pinellas Avenue near the Anclote River in the area that would later become Tarpon Springs. First excavated in 1879, the mound was more thoroughly investigated in 1896. It contained more than 600 skeletons and a wide variety of pottery that represented changes in the lifestyle and culture of these prehistoric people. Eventually, in the 1920s, the Safford Mound was partially razed to make room for real estate development.
In 1876, A.W. Ormond of South Carolina and his teenage daughter, Mary, built a cabin near Spring Bayou and became the first settlers of what is now Tarpon Springs. One year later, Joshua Boyer, traveling alone on a voyage to see the world aboard his sloop, docked by the Ormonds’ cabin. He fell in love with young Mary, married her and built the second cabin. As the story has been told from generation to generation, it was actually Mary who suggested they name their tiny two-cabin settlement Tarpon Springs for the giant tarpon that jumped and splashed in the bayou. This was the very beginning of Tarpon Springs’ colorful evolution into a full-fledged city.
In 1881, a Florida agency, the Florida Internal Improvement Fund, was on the verge of bankruptcy when a wealthy Philadelphia manufacturer named Hamilton Disston rescued the agency with one of the biggest real estate deals ever. Disston bought 4 million acres of Florida’s fertile heartland for 25 cents per acre. This included the area which would later become Tarpon Springs. Disston surveyed and planned the city along the Anclote River where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico. On February 12, 1887, Tarpon Springs became the first incorporated city on the Pinellas Peninsula.
That same year the Orange Belt Railway arrived in the city, with the right of way for the line donated by Hamilton Disston. This advance in transportation changed the face of Tarpon Springs and made it much easier to import and export people and cargo. The construction of Anclote Key lighthouse also advanced transportation by sea by making it safer to enter and exit the harbor.
With advances in transportation, Tarpon Springs became a popular winter resort for wealthy Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century. The mild winters, sunshine, sea breezes and the smell of pines were said to work wonders for respiratory, nervous and digestive problems. The town’s reputation as a winter haven for the rich was further enhanced by the “medicinal” waters of the mineral springs bubbling up in Spring Bayou. In the 1880s northerners built impressive Victorian homes around the area. Each fall they escaped the northern winters and migrated to the area with their families to sail, fish, play golf and enjoy the plentiful natural habitat.
Although the winter migration of the early snowbirds had a big affect on the growth of Tarpon Springs, the discovery of the sponge off the shores of the community had the largest impact. In 1873, turtle fishermen discovered sponge beds off the west coast of central Florida at the mouth of the Anclote River when sponges snagged their nets. This discovery brought the dawning of a new industry for the area.
John King Cheyney, son of a rich Philadelphia Quaker, is credited with changing Tarpon Springs to “sponge town.” He managed his family’s business, the Anclote River and Rock Island Sponge Company with offices in Philadelphia and Tarpon Springs. Initially, sponges were harvested with the hook method by spongers which included many African Americans who worked as sponge hookers and crew men. In time, he hired John Cocoris, a young Greek sponge buyer. Cocoris was responsible for bringing his brothers and other Greek divers to Tarpon Springs. With their advanced methods and equipment, these divers were able to harvest many more sponges. An ad in a Greek newspaper seeking sponge divers brought some 500 people to Tarpon Springs from 1905 to 1906. As more and more sponge beds were discovered more immigrants followed and Tarpon Springs was transformed into a replica of a Mediterranean port city with restaurants and markets.
Sponge-packing houses were built in the city. To be marketed, sponges had to be thoroughly cleaned, dried and trimmed. To aid in this process businessmen installed sponge presses and buyers started moving 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.
In 1906, the Sponge Exchange Bank was established. In 1907 the Sponge Exchange, which was an organized system for buying and grading sponges, was founded. This system was established by the divers, boat builders, deck hands and buyers. The exchange consisted of storage bins around the perimeter with an auction block in the center. Profits from sponging also financed other businesses such as the Sponge Exchange Cigar Company.
1876 -- A. W. Ormond and his teenage daughter, Mary, of South Carolina were the first settlers of what became present day Tarpon Springs. A year later Joshua Boyer joined them and married Mary.
1881 -- Hamilton Disston purchased four million acres of Florida property for 25 cents per acre. The purchase included Tarpon Springs.
1883 -- The Tropical Hotel and Tarpon Springs Hotel were built. The Tropical Hotel was later renamed The Ferns.
1884 -- The Tarpon Springs post office was established. The first postmaster was Edward A. Blum.
1886 -- John King Cheyney (1858-1939) came to Tarpon Springs to manage his family’s interests.
1887 -- Tarpon Springs was incorporated with a population of several hundred. The meeting was held in the recently opened school house and 33 of the 46 registered voters participated. Under the chairmanship of Edward Newton Knapp, they elected Wilber F. DeGolier, a retired businessman from Bradford, Pennsylvania, as mayor. The five aldermen were: Edward A. Blum, Joshua Boyer, Anson P. K. Safford, W. E. D. Scott, and Charles Dix Webster. G. H. Platt was elected marshal. Merrick Whitcomb was chosen Town Clerk. Whitcomb was a young Harvard graduate who later spent many years as head of the history department of the University of Cincinnati and wrote stories based on his life in Tarpon Springs.
1888 -- The Orange Belt Railway reached Tarpon Springs.
1890 -- American landscape painter George Inness came to Tarpon Springs and made it his winter home. Inness and his son, George Jr., later depicted the scenic Tarpon Spring vistas on canvas.
1891 -- John Cheyney, backed by Disston, formed the Anclote and Rock Island Sponge Company, with offices in Philadelphia and Tarpon Springs, and became the founder of the sponge industry.
1894 -- An extensive fire destroyed many of the downtown buildings which had been constructed of wood. Replacement buildings were masonry and more fire resistant.
1897 -- John Cheyney hired John Cocoris, a Greek sponge buyer who utilized a diving suit that allowed men to spend hours at a time underwater to harvest greater quantities of sponge.
1905 -- The first Greek immigrants arrived.
1906 -- John Cocoris and his brothers accomplished the first mechanized sponge dive by using a hand-operated compressor.
1907 -- John Cheyney and Ernest Meres founded the Tarpon Springs Sponge Exchange.
1909 -- The first Greek Church building was constructed. It was a frame building with no “foundation stone.”
1920 -- Florida tourism and real estate prospered.
1922 -- The Sponge Exchange Bank closed for business. The Tarpon Springs Leader announced the formation of a new banking company under the title of the First National Bank of Tarpon Springs.
1926 -- The land boom began to collapse.
1927 -- The Tarpon Inn was destroyed by fire.
1938 -- Misfortune struck. Blight infested the sponge beds killing a great number of the sponges. Enough sponges survived the blight to allow the industry to survive and continue to grow.
1947 -- A red tide algae bloom wiped out the sponge fields in this part of the Gulf of Mexico.
1950 -- The Panama City News-Herald reported the state of Florida traded 4,500 acres of Gulf coast marshland to the federal government for Anclote Island, and the island later ceded to the city of Tarpon Springs for development into a municipal beach. The article reported that the Mayor of Tarpon Springs said the city planned to build a causeway to the island.
1959 -- Sponges slowly started to return.
1968 -- The Anclote River Bridge collapsed.
1970 -- Sponge beds return to full strength.
Following the collapse of the land boom in 1926 and a destructive hurricane, Florida’s poor economic condition was also felt in Tarpon Springs. By the late 1920s, the town experienced the Great Depression. While some definitely felt its effects, the sponge industry prospered, and sponge-related businesses did not suffer the economic disaster of other businesses nationwide. In the 1930s the sponge industry of Tarpon Springs was very prosperous and brought in millions of dollars for sponges yearly.
Misfortune hit the industry later. In 1938 blight infested the sponge beds and many of the sponges died. Despite this disaster, the industry continued to grow with 180 diving boats out each day harvesting sponges. Unfortunately, a red tide in 1948 wreaked devastating damage to supply. Sponges began to slowly return in 1959. It was the 1970s before the beds regained their full strength.
The industry was revived by the 1980s when healthy sea sponges were found. Professional sponge divers still search the waters as deep as 150 feet off the coast of Tarpon Springs. Today less than a dozen sponge boats harvest from the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the boats are still owned by Greek descendants. Auctions are no longer held but sponges are still sold all over the world.
George Inness -- One of America’s most beloved landscape painters, and whose paintings hang in the great galleries of the world, maintained a home and studio in Tarpon Springs during the 1890s.
George Inness Jr. -- The son of the artistic genius George Inness, George Jr. was the most famous winter resident of Tarpon Springs in the early 1900s. His own radiant paintings are on display at the Tarpon Springs Universalist Church.
Allen Leepa -- A highly regarded educator, author and artist known for his abstract expressionist style. He donated hundreds of works to the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, including his own and that of his stepfather Abraham Rattner.
Christopher Still -- A nationally known artist whose epic series of murals depicting the history of Florida adorn Florida’s Governor’s Mansion and the House of Representatives. His paintings also can be found in the Smithsonian Institution and the White House.
Anson P. K. Safford -- The former territorial governor of Arizona and one of the original developers of Tarpon Springs.
Dr. Mary Jane Safford -- A former Civil War nurse, she was Florida’s first female practicing physician.
Louis Pappas -- A former World War I army cook. In 1925, he opened the Pappas Restaurant which was a Tarpon Springs landmark until it closed in 2005.
Rev. Henry de Lafayette Webster -- The composer of the popular Civil War love son, “Lorena” and the founder of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs.
A $20 million tourism industry has replaced sponging as Tarpon Springs’ main economic activity. However, much of what attracts tourists to the area is sponge diving and the Greek local color. The sponge industry still brings about $2 million to the economy per year.
The City of Tarpon Springs.
The Heritage Museum of Tarpon Springs.
The Tarpon Springs Cultural Center.
The Tarpon Springs Historical Society (information and photos)
- Museum of Florida History