Florida Fishing Villages: Tarpon Springs

Sponge diver statue found on the Tarpon Springs sponge docks
Sponge diver statue at Tarpon Springs

Dotting the Florida coastline are several historic fishing villages. One such village, Tarpon Springs, lies on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, just north of Old Tampa Bay. In this charming town Floridian and Greek influences blend to form a truly unique community.

The history of Tarpon Springs as a town began in 1876 with the arrival of its first settlers, A.W. Ormond and his daughter, Mary. Together they built a cabin near Spring Bayou and established a permanent residence there. A year later an adventurer named Joshua Boyer sailed from Nassau, Bahamas dreaming to see the world. He eventually made his way to Spring Bayou where he met the Ormond’s. Shortly after his arrival he constructed his own cabin in the area and married Mary Ormond. It was around this time when the settlement got its name, Tarpon Springs. This name was inspired by the tarpon that were abundant in the surrounding waters during the 19th century. Mary Ormond is credited with naming the town. It is said that she saw tarpon leaping out of Spring Bayou and this is what helped inspire the town’s name.

Sunset over Spring Bayou in Tarpon Springs
Sunset over Spring Bayou, Tarpon Springs

During this time, while the settlement of Tarpon Springs was just beginning, the state of Florida was at risk of falling into bankruptcy. In an effort to save the state, a deal was made in 1881 with a wealthy Philadelphian manufacturer named Hamilton Disston. The State sold Disston 4 million acres of land along the central west coast of Florida. Included in this deal was the land compromising Tarpon Springs. It was Disston who had the area surveyed and planned the layout of the town that would become Tarpon Springs. Through the investments and guidance of Disston, Tarpon Springs was beginning to become an attractive town for northerners to settle. Tarpon Springs continued to develop, with the first post office being constructed in 1884. Within a few years the town housed about 300 residents and became an incorporated city in February 1887.

Sponges for sale in Tarpon Springs market
Sponges for sale in Tarpon Springs market

The next major event that occurred in 1887 was the arrival of the railroads. Tarpon Springs had already been surveyed for a railway 3 years earlier but it was not until 1887 that a railroad depot was constructed. The arrival of the railroads dramatically changed the accessibility of the town. Before the trains arrived, travelers had to take a horse and buggy from Sanford to Cedar Key, followed by a steamboat ride to Tarpon Springs. When the railroads reached Tarpon Springs the town was not only opened up to new settlers, but also new economic opportunities.

Around this time, an associate of Disston, John Cheney, established the sponge industry in Tarpon Springs and began to promote the harvesting and selling of the sponges from the Gulf. While Cheney brought the sponge industry to Tarpon Springs, it was Greek immigrants that expanded and perfected it. The sponge industry in Tarpon Springs was incredibly successful and quickly became the community’s most important business. Over the next decade the sponge trade grew dramatically in Tarpon Springs, becoming a multimillion dollar industry.

The opportunities seen in the sponge industry at this time attracted many people to Tarpon Springs. By 1905, there were over 500 Greek sponge divers harvesting the waters surrounding the town. Other Greeks soon followed and established businesses of their own, such as restaurants and stores, to serve the community. The success of the sponge industry in this area attracted many sponge merchants and brokers who helped grow the industry. These newcomers built boats, supplied equipment to the entire community of spongers and were instrumental in establishing the sponge exchange bank in 1906 and the sponge exchange in 1908. For 30 years the sponge industry continued to grow and expand around Tarpon Springs. It eventually became the largest industry in Florida and Tarpon Springs became known as the “sponge capital of the world”.

Sponges drying on boat in Tarpon Springs
Sponges drying on boat in Tarpon Springs

During the early years of sponge harvesting, spongers used the hook method. When the water was calm with good visibility, fishermen would scan the ocean bottom until finding a sponge. Once a sponge was spotted, the spongers would use a long pole with a hook on the end to tear the sponge from the bottom. This was a fairly efficient method however it was not the most sustainable and was limited to only 15 feet in depth. When the Greeks arrived, they brought with them the knowledge of how to harvest sponges at greater depths and do it more sustainably. This alternative method involved spongers diving to the sea floor and using a knife to cut the sponge free. This method allowed for greater control during the harvesting process and sponges were more likely to regrow from the remains. This became the dominate method of harvesting shortly after the Greeks arrived. Sponges harvested from Tarpon Springs were used for personal hygiene, household jobs, medical practices, and countless other tasks.

Unfortunately, in the 1940s the sponge industry began to collapse. This collapse was instigated by a disease that ravaged sponges in the Gulf, dramatically reducing their growth, and a devastating red tide. Within a decade the sponge industry was almost entirely wiped out. It took until the 1980s, 30 years later, for the sponge population to bounce back and to discover new profitable sponge beds. With the end of the blight, discovery of new sponge beds, and new sustainable harvesting regulations, Tarpon Springs continues to harvest natural sponges though not to the extent they historically were.



Image 1: photo © SR Productions, stock.adobe.com [#279003083]

Image 2: photo © Stephen, stock.adobe.com [#109687599]

Image 3: photo © Shalimar Rodriguez/EyeEm, stock.adobe.com [#318342769]

Image 4: photo © Teesixb, stock.adobe.com [#203451784]

Author: Andrew Pressly, Education and Engagement Coordinator at FMM