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Monday, February 20, 2012

Tarpon Springs

Google Earth, Tarpon Springs
In the 1860s the small village of Anclote was founded along Anclote River just three miles west of present day Tarpon Springs. In 1881, Hamilton Disston bought 4 million acres of land from Governor Bloxham including land at the mouth of the Anclote River that Disston thought would make a great winter health resort. Disston sent Anson P. K. Safford to develop the area [1]

Sponge boats in Anclote River
Tarpon Springs gained its name in 1879 when Mary Ormond Boyer saw Mullet (which she thought were Tarpon) jumping out of the water of the Springs [2]. The name Tarpon Springs grew popular over time. But Tarpon Springs did not flourish as a winter health resort nor did it become famous for its mullet, instead prosper and fame came from the rich sponge harvest in the nearby Gulf waters. 

A view of the Spring Bayou (original springs)
Spring Bayou lined with docks and a promenade
In 1891, the first sponge boat was outfitted by John Cheyney, who also established the Anclote and Rock Island Sponge Company at Bailey's Bluff, a bluff overlooking the northern shore of the Anclote River and the Gulf [1]
Modern Fishing Boat
In the 1880s and 1890s, diving was not a part of the sponge diving industry in Florida. Metal buckets with glass bottoms were placed in the water to provide a spyglass to the seafloor, where sponges in shallow water would be hooked and dragged up to the boat. The railroad was established in 1884 and the town of Tarpon Springs was incorporated in 1887. A sponge exchange was established in Tarpon Springs in 1905 which was conveniently located near the railroad depot-the present day home of the Tarpon Springs Historical Society [2].

Tarpon Springs Railroad Depot

Also in 1905, Cheyney hired John Cocoris a young Greek sponge diver who convinced Cheyney that mechanized sponge boats and diving were more efficient means of harvesting the sponges. By 1907, five hundred Greek divers had immigrated with their families to Tarpon Springs from Aegean and Dodecanese Islands [1]. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral may not have been the same physical building that stands today but the congregation and community were well-established by 1907.

Tarpon Springs built in 1936, refurbished in 2009, currently listed on the NRHP


The most famous tradition associated with the Greek Orthodox community of Tarpon Springs is Epiphany, a holiday that takes place on January 6 of every year. In this celebration is a practice unique to Tarpon Springs. Hundreds gather around the springs from which Tarpon Springs gets its name, known as the Spring Bayou locally. Every year a priest throws a cross into the Spring Bayou and young Greek boys dive to see who will be the first to bring up the cross (link to great pictures and summary of this event here and here). 

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral

Greek flag flying before the Cathedral

The prosperity from the sponge trade only lasted a few decades. A red tide algae bloom killed many sponges in 1938 and another algae bloom attacked the remaining sponges in 1947. This along with the introduction of synthetic sponges, affected the sponge export business in Tarpon Springs permanently. Today, the sponge trade is slowly reviving as a tourist attraction and the sponges themselves are proving to be a unique curio. 

Inner workings of a sponge boat

Sponges are placed in nets after harvest from and prior to drying treatment.

Sponges drying

Sponges for sale!

Sponges for sale everywhere!! You could even incorporate them into art, household plants and garden pieces! It was really enjoyable walking along Dodecanese Boulevard and taking in the live music, sponge docks, sponge boats, Greek bakeries, Greek restaurants, tourist shops, and historical plaques and statues. 

Dodecanese Boulevard

*All photographs were taken by Whitney Rose Petrey on January 28, 2012. Reuse permissible if linked to this site.

1. Kilgo, Dolores. Tarpon Springs. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing (2002).
2. Hedman, Carol Jeffares. "Storied Past, Vibrant Present Mark Tarpon Springs" Tampa Tribune. April 11, 2002, p. 8.
3. Moskos, Charles C. Greek Americans: Struggle and Success. 2nd ed., New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers (1989).

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Maritime Culture by Whitney Rose Petrey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License