Tarpon Springs, Florida was named for the species of game fish that is the namesake of this west coast town. Another marine animal, the lowly sponge, also has made history in this central Florida community.
Today the Sponge Dock district is filled with Greek restaurants, candy stores and bakeries as well as unique and not so unique shops that sell sponges, souvenirs, clothing, and other items. There is still a strong Greek influence in the community as several businesses are owned by descendants of the first Greek immigrants who moved here during the height of the sponge diving operations.
The City of Tarpon Springs website explains that the center of U.S. sponge harvesting shifted from the Florida Keys and the Bahamas during the 1870s when sponge beds were accidentally discovered in the nets of turtle fishermen near Tarpon Springs. The first large commercial sponge operations began in the late 1890s. By the early 1900s Tarpon Springs was considered the largest sponge port in the United States.
A Greek sponge buyer named John Cocoris from New York partnered with John Cheney from Tarpon Springs. Soon Greek sponge divers from Greece were brought in to harvest the sponges. Divers numbering 500 came from several Greek Islands to develop the huge sponge industry. Several developments in the industry were first utilized by companies in and around Tarpon Springs.
Among those developments were the first mechanized sponge boats in 1905. Further business development led to the organization of a Sponge Exchange which brought sponge boat operators, sponge processors and bankers together into an organized business model.
The sponge industry survived the Florida land crash, hurricanes and the Great Depression. Today tourism is the main business in the area. Thousands of visitors come each year to walk along the old Sponge Dock area on Dodecanese Boulevard and enjoy the Greek community. This historic travel destination in Central Florida is a perfect stop for families, couples or groups.