You might be forgiven for thinking Tarpon Springs’ roots lie in Greek settlers. The town is, after all, well known for its Greek heritage. And though Greek immigrants did play a vital role in the town’s success and identity, they were not the ones who founded Tarpon Springs. The history of Tarpon Springs, like the history of Florida, stretches much further back than what we see today.
Early History of Tarpon Springs Area
Native Americans, of course, lived here first. The early tribes became known by their culture rather than tribal names, according to Pinellas County. Cultures such as the Manasota existed around 550 BC; Weedon Island started around 500 AD, and Safety Harbor around 950 AD. Archaeologists identify each culture by its unique pottery and arrowheads. The Safety Harbor culture is also identified by their pyramidal mounds atop which were built the chief’s home and the village temple. By the time the first Europeans set foot in Florida in the early 1500s, four tribes dominated the state – the Tequesta in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area, the Calusa in southwest Florida, the Tocobaga in central Florida particularly around Tampa Bay, and the Apalachi in north Florida.
The Tocobaga made their home primarily in what is now Pinellas and Pasco counties, to the the west and northwest of Tampa. Archaeologists believe their main settlement was located in present-day Safety Harbor where a large mound is now part of Philipe Park. As was typical of Safety Harbor culture, the chief’s home and the temple would have sat at the top of the mound. The nobles’ homes would have surrounded the mound with lower classes even further out. The Tocobaga were generally considered peaceful though accounts from later Spanish expeditions depict an aggressive people who fought brutally for their land and homes.
Spanish History of Tarpon Springs Area
Five hundred years ago, when de Gama and Pineda made their way through the Tampa Bay area, the Tocobagas lived throughout the area in smaller villages, including along the banks of the Anclote River. Small mangrove islands dot the river’s mouth, and the river winds east and north through marshes and bayous. The south side of the river would have been low, as it is today, with grassy banks rolling down to the water’s edge, an occasional palm tree or oak tree found along higher ground. The banks on the north side, however, are typically higher all along the river’s course and would have looked much the same back then. The higher banks roll down to beaches from time to time and the banks would have been covered in high ground trees such as oaks, pines, and various types of shrubs. The high and dry land made for good sites for villages and later for settlers. In fact, the first white settlers in the area chose the north side of the Anclote River for the their first homesteads.
We know the Tocobaga inhabited this immediate area. A county park protects several small mounds, and a local legend tells of a “Spanish well” or spring which the Tocobaga and pirates used. In 1932, the St. Petersburg Times mentioned the legend of the well noting:
In May of 1946, the St. Petersburg Times ran another story which again mentioned the legend of the Spanish well:
Disease brought by the Spanish and fighting with the Calusa reduced the Tocobaga and Timucuans to a few hundred. The Seminole moved into the area from Georgia after the Tocobagans and Timucuans were weakened. These were the tribe involved in the Seminole Indian Wars of 1816, 1832, and 1856. The first white settlers to the area arrived in 1866. They built their homesteads on the north side of the river around what is now known as Anclote. The families – the Harrisons, the Cobbs, and the Meyers – moved from present-day Marion County (Ocala), built cabins, and planted orange seeds near the river. By the time these families moved to Anclote, the Seminole had been driven either south into the Everglades or west to the reservations.
Anclote thrived as a community for a few decades. At its height, the town boasted social features such as three-story homes, butlers, and afternoon tea. Men fished in the nearby harbor. They built a saw mill though it succumbed rather quickly to a fire. Anclote was also the original home to the sponge industry. Before Tarpon Springs existed and before Greek spongers dived for sponges, boats based in Anclote “hooked” sponges and sold their harvest at Cedar Key and further north.
The Rise of Tarpon Springs
Tarpon Springs was first settled about ten years after Anclote. A.W. Ormond and his daughter, Mary, built a cabin along Spring Bayou. A year later, Tarpon Springs was the home to George Inness and his son, George Jr, both landscape and wildlife painters, as well as to J.C. Boyer, an adventurer from Nassau who married Mary Ormond shortly after he settled in Tarpon Springs. It was Mary who gave Tarpon Springs its name after the fish she saw jumping in the bayou near her home.
In 1884, a post office was established at Tarpon Springs, followed by a railroad soon after. The railroad stop in Tarpon Springs, bypassing Anclote, spelled that town’s decline while Tarpon Springs prospered. Tarpon Springs was incorporated in 1887. The sponge industry began operating there around the same time and was a major industry of the town by 1890. The sponge industry brought many spongers from Key West and the Bahamas as well as a few Greek immigrants.
To this point, Tarpon Springs had been known as a winter retreat for wealthy Northerners. The Florida State Gazetteer reported in 1886-1887 that Tarpon Springs had a population of 300 with 8 stores, 2 hotels, a steam saw mill, public school, and 2 churches. Oranges, vegetables, and lumber were the main exports. One of the hotels, the Tarpon Springs, gained fame within a decade as one of the finest on Florida’s west coast. The Tarpon became particularly popular for its proximity to the Tarpon mineral spring in what we now call Spring Bayou. In 1885, Webb’s Historical, Industrial and Biographical Florida described the spring as
Tarpon Springs was already known for its sponge industry by the turn of the century. The inshore areas at the mouth of the Anclote River became known as Sponge Harbor. The harbor was “noted all over the country for its fine sponge fisheries. The finest sheep-wool and grass sponges in the world are taken off Sponge Harbor.”
By 1904, Tarpon Springs was considered the leader of the sponge industry in the US. Approximately 1000 men worked on 150 sponge boats spending six days at sea March through June and October through December. Spongers used a 30’ to 40’ long 3-pronged rake, and working from a rowboat with the aid of a glass-bottomed bucket, “hooked” sponges from the seabed. These early spongers were Bahamian, from Key West, or local black men. The Greeks had not yet arrived but whey they did, they changed the sponge industry and Tarpon Springs.
The Greeks Arrive
In 1905, John Corcoris introduced sponge diving to Tarpon Springs. Corcoris immigrated to New York from Greece 10 years earlier in 1895. A year later, he began working with John Cheyney, founder of the Sponge Exchange, in Tarpon Springs. Corcoris had been a sponge diver in the Mediterranean sponge industry and recruited sponge divers from Greece. Most of the Greeks came from the Dodecanese islands of Kalymnos, Symi, and Halki. They brought their families and culture, their food and music, their religion, and most important, their sponging methods. The Racine Journal-News wrote on March 25, 1916
At that time, the city claimed to be the largest sponge market in the Western hemisphere. Tarpon Springs named the main riverfront road, with its Sponge Exchange and Greek shops, Dodecanese Boulevard to honor the heritage of the Greek divers. The Greeks who started out as hired help became business owners through their hard work and business acumen. They owned approximately half of the sponge fleet. Likewise, in town, they owned roughly half the businesses. Many formed lucrative partnerships with whites. For their part, the black spongers contributed nearly as much to the community as the Greeks. They donated as equally in sponges (for money) and labor as the Greek community for the construction of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
Sponging remained the #1 industry in Tarpon Springs until 1947 when a red algae bloom wiped out the sponge beds. Many divers switched to fishing or shrimping while others left sponging, and Tarpon Springs, altogether. The St. Pete Times predicted in a 1949 article that Tarpon Springs would wither and die if Congress didn’t hike the duty on imported sponges and help improve demand for domestic sponges. Synthetic sponges caused demand for real sponges to plummet as the fake ones were less expensive. The sponge industry continued to suffer.
Eventually, Tarpon Springs found new life as a tourist town. The sponge industry remains. A handful of sponge boats still leave the dock daily, their decks filled with tourists, not divers. They cater to the sunset cruise crowd with complimentary drinks and a sponge diver on board who demonstrates how Greeks harvested sponges 100 years ago. Along Dodecanese, boutiques sell real sponges and handmade soaps, clothing and knick-knacks. Greek restaurants and bakeries offer authentic dishes and Greek specialties for diners. The tangy aroma of souvlaki – meat skewers – wafts along the boardwalk.
Tarpon Springs continues to find pride in its Greek heritage and sponging past. The biggest holiday is Easter, followed by Epiphany, true to the Orthodox Greek faith. The local high school, a performing arts magnet school and national marching band champions, are known as the Spongers. Dodecanese Boulevard and the Sponge Docks draw tourists from around the world. The historic downtown region a few blocks south of Dodecanese pays homage to Mama Meres, an icon in the small Greek community. The same downtown region also honors the older buildings that harken back to the days when Tarpon Springs was a winter resort for wealthy Northerners. Everywhere one looks in Tarpon Springs, history and heritage wind through the names, the customs, the buildings, and the very heart of the city.