History: The Early Years
Nestled around the bayous and Anclote River on the central coast of the Gulf of Mexico, Tarpon Springs is a unique community with a rich heritage based on its maritime history and Greek culture. First settled in 1876, the area soon to be named Tarpon Springs became a winter home to wealthy northerners by the early 1880s. By the 1920s, the city was a regional cultural center promoted as the “Venice of the South.” And the town had changed. Sponges determined its direction.
The Industrial Revolution created great demand for sponges in the cleaning, ceramics, shoe-finishing, and printing industries in addition to household, hygienic, military, and medical uses—generating an important international trade. Until a French merchant started exporting sponges from the Bahamas in the early 1840s, the entire world supply was harvested in the Mediterranean. The West Atlantic sponge industry encompassed Florida, the Bahamas, Cuba, and other Caribbean Basin locations. By 1849 Bahamian sponge fishermen developed large operations in the Florida Keys, and trade developed between Key West merchants and New York wholesalers. Conchs from Key West and Bahamians harvested sponges up the Gulf Coast and up the Atlantic coast to Miami, returning to Key West to sell them. Key West was one of the largest world markets by 1900.
In 1873, turtle fishermen near Tarpon Springs found sponges in their nets—the first sign of 9000 square miles of untouched beds. Sponge fishing in the Gulf accelerated in the late 19th century. It was not until 1886 that John Cheyney began supplying sponges from Tarpon Springs to the U.S. market. In 1897 he hired John Cocoris, a Greek who had been working in the Keys as a sponge buyer for a New York company. At the time, Floridians hooked sponges with long poles while seated in a dinghy.
By 1890 Tarpon Springs was a market for Gulf sponges. The Spanish American War of 1898 impelled the Keys sponging fleet to sell their harvest in Tarpon Springs, with the result that some Conchs and Bahamians from Key West settled there.