Tarpon Springs Florida

Florida Frontiers Greek Culture in Tarpon Springs

General Information

Tarpon Springs, Florida is a quaint nostalgic city with a population of approximately 25,000 people. It is located in Pinellas County on the Anclote River less than a mile from the Gulf of Mexico on the west coast of Florida. Its’ location is about 30 miles northwest of Tampa and just 20 minutes north of Clearwater. This city is a modern day “Little Greece” and is primarily recognized today for its’ famed sponge docks and Greek heritage. Markedly, Tarpon Springs has more Greek people per capita than any other American city. In the early twentieth century hundreds of Greek sponge divers and their families migrated to the city and the Greek culture has been engrained, established and thrived ever since. Today the surrounding bayou, river and mainline to the gulf is still the operative waterfront that serves as the sponge boats and large fleet of shrimpers home base. The sponge industryis the most vital business in Tarpon Springs and generates millions of dollars for the city each year. It also aided in the building of a Greek community that is now known for thefinest sponges, Greek restaurants, markets and bakeries to be found inthe United States. This charming little town is rich in history and is a popular tourist attraction.As a result, tourism is the city’s mainstay and contributes more than $20 million a year to the local economy. Tarpon Springs is also wellknown for its notorious Epiphany celebration that occurs on January 6th each year. Thousands of people rally in the city to take part in this religious tradition of the Greek Orthodox Church on this prideful day. Tarpon Springs is a beautiful city where one can delight in the experience of Little Greece in the America’s and is a strong focal point of the community where heritage and culture continues to bloom.

Early History

The establishment of the region in what is known today as the thriving city of Tarpon Springs began with the area’s first private landholder, Samuel E. Hope when he purchased the territory on the north side of the river in 1864. Farmers and fisherman then began to settle in the area and in that same year, a couple from South Carolina by the names of William and Julia Thompson homesteaded a plot of land. This couple’s home is still in existence today and serves as a noted historic site denoted as the Thompson-Jukes house, which is located on the present-day major highway US 19 at the corner of Nebraska Ave. In 1876, a man named A. W. Ormond and his daughter, Mary migrated to the area and became the first settlers to live in what are now the city limits of Tarpon Springs. The waterfront city thrived with a fish that Mary loved to watch jump out of the water. The fish were mullet, but she thought them to be Tarpon, so she named the settlement Tarpon Springs. Not shortly after the first settlers arrived, a man named Hamilton Disston, a wealthy saw manufacturer from Philadelphia purchased the land in Tarpon Springs. He recruited a surveyor with whom he had prior business dealings and in 1882 heconducted a survey for the land. Disston ordered the creation of a plan for the vision he had for the city.Lake Tarpon, which is a large lake in Tarpon Springs was called Lake Butler at this time. Disston formulated a company and named it Lake Butler Company with Tarpon Springs servingas the head of his operations. A man named Anson P.K. Stafford was one of Disston’s long tenured business associates and was recruited by Disston to run Lake Butler Company. Stafford had accomplished numerous professional achievements throughout his career such as his election to the California assembly, his appointment as surveyor general in Nevada, his appointment as territorial governor of Arizona and his spearheading and implementing of the Arizona public school system. He was the perfect candidate to assist Disston in making his vision for Tarpon Springs a reality and with this newly formulated business relationship the building of the city of Tarpon Springs infrastructure began. The town grew in residents, sprouted many establishments and in 1884 a post office was opened. Stafford built the first small school, established land for churches, and his sister even opened a medical practice in the area and became the first female physician in the state of Florida. Tarpon Springs is noted for many historical accomplishments and this small town’s legacy is cherished and celebrated by its residents.

On February 12, 1887 Tarpon Springs became the first incorporated city of what would later become Pinellas County. In less than a year, the Orange Belt Railway and famous Anclote Key lighthouse were constructed. The Orange Belt Railway was the first railroad in the area. Prior to the railway being operative, Tarpon Springs could only be reached by wagon, oxcart, horseback, boat or a circuitous train. With the establishment of the improved means of transportation, the city manifested continued growth and development. Not surprisingly, this warm Florida city became a location where affluent northern Americans could vacation or migrate to during the cold winter months. To this day, the winter migration to Tarpon Springs still occurs and the locals comically call these stereotypes snowbirds.

Tarpon Springs had an opportunistic start riddled with affluently seasoned developers whom were rich with resources, but it wasn’t long before the small city began to endure some setbacks that threatened its’ ability to thrive. During the winter of 1894-1895 the city experienced record low temperatures that destroyed most of the citrus crop, which significantly impacted the income of the area. Then in 1894, almost the entire city’s’ businesses and shops were destroyed by a fire. Although disheartened, the citizens persevered. They rebuilt their stores and structure out of brick, stone and metal that would be more fire resistant than the wooden structures they had previously constructed. Then in 1890, the founding of the sponge industry changed the outlook of the city that would carry over to this day and create a mainstay and staple industry for Tarpon Springs.

By 1900, Tarpon Springs was known as the largest sponge port in the United States. Other Greek immigrants migrated to the city where other businesses such as restaurants, candy shops, coffee houses and grocery stores were erected to support the Greek community. All of thegrowth and development attracted sponge merchants and brokers to Tarpon Springs and in 1906 the Sponge Exchange Bank wasestablished. Then in 1908 the Sponge Exchange was founded. Tarpon Springs High School was built in 1912, a water supply system was built in 1914 and City Hall was open for business in 1915. Subdivisions, an ice plant, an electric plant, cigar factories, banks, a hospital and other tourist buildings were constructed in the city. More setbacks arose in 1926 with the collapse of the Florida land boom and a devastating hurricane, however,amongst the setbacks the sponge industry continued to prosper until 1948 when red algae infested and devastated the sponge beds. It temporarily wiped out the industry, but the sponges regained full population by the 1970’s and the industry returned and thrived. The sponge industry assisted in the building of a Greek community in Tarpon Springsand today it is an engaging waterfront city that attracts tourists from all over the United States and a charming home to many.

Sponge Industry

In 1890 a man by the name of John Cheyney founded the first sponge business in Tarpon Springs and opened the Anclote River and Rock Island Sponge Company. Following this, sponge packing houses were built, and sponge presses were installed which created many jobs for the local economy. When it was discovered that sponges were a profitable source of income and business, early sponge divers harvested sponges off the coast of Key West, Cuba and the Bahamas using surface boats and long poles. The trade shifted from these areas to Tarpon Springs and by 1900, the city was known as the largest sponge port in the United States. The sponging technique used at the time was called the “hook method”, which was done from very small row boats with a three-pronged rake that was thirty to forty feet long. The early spongers also used an ordinary water bucket with a glass bottom to detect the sponges. Although this method was effective and served its purpose, it had many drawbacks. It was useless in bad weather and could not withstand certain tide changes when the water would get murky and create visibility issues. This did not hinder the sponge industry in Tarpon Springs and new developments led to the rise and continued prosperity of the business.

In 1896 a man named John Cocoris, a sponge buyer for a New York firm went to work for John Cheyney and in 1905, Cocoris introduced the first mechanized sponge fishing boat to Tarpon Springs. He began enlisting crew members from Greece in an effort to popularize the notorious Greek technique of sponge diving. It was a deep diving technique where divers used a special diving suit with a bronze collar and a heavy bronze diving helmet which was equipped with a valve for air supply from a rubber hose. Air was pumped into the hose from a compressor on a fishing boat. The spongers weren’t limited by bad weather or tides and could dive all the way to the bottom of the ocean, which enabled them to obtain higher quality sponges. Sponge diving was risky business and it was dangerous. Sometimes a man’s rubber line would get tangled, his air supply would be cut off, or they would remain too deep for too long and become paralyzed. There were also the risks of man eating sharks. This was not an appealing occupation to Americans. The high risk was too much for the low wage and they could not compete with the Greek workers. As a result, the Greeks had zero competition in the business and acquired a monopoly on the sponge industry.The Greek community emerged in Tarpon Springs and sponging became one of the most well-known and profitable maritime enterprises in Florida.

Other Greek immigrants migrated to Tarpon Springs where other businesses such as restaurants, candy shops, coffee houses and grocery stores erected to support the Greek community. The growth and development attracted sponge merchants and brokers to Tarpon Springs and in 1906 the Sponge Exchange Bank was established. Then in 1908 the Sponge Exchange was founded. The sponge industry continued to prosper until 1948 when red algae infested and devastated the sponge beds. It temporarily wiped out the industry, but the silver lining was the inception of the shrimping industry in the area, which is still a prominent source of income for the city. Nature took its course, the sponges recovered and the Greek culture and age-old trade of sponging reemerged again in the 1970’s. Today, the sponge industry is the most vital business in Tarpon Springs and generates millions of dollars for the city each year.

Epiphany Celebration

Tarpon Springs, Florida has been known for its fantastical Epiphany celebration that occurs each year on January 6thfor ages. In the Greek Orthodox tradition, Epiphany is the commemoration of the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist at the Jordan River. In older times, the Jesus Christ baptismal day was celebrated on a grand scale and with a long procession. Keeping with tradition, the Greek community of Tarpon Springs established that January 6th of each year would be celebrated with the christening of the waters and the immersion of the cross in the Spring bayou on “Cross Day” or “Epiphany”. The first Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs took place in 1903, was held in a Episcopal church and was only attended by a few people. Over time, more and more Greeks and other Americans traveled to Tarpon Springs to take place in the festivities and celebrate the Epiphany. Today, there is no place in America that the Epiphany is celebrated as it is in Tarpon Springs and the ceremonies are indistinguishable to the ones that take place in and around Greece. The whole city is beautifully decorated with religious symbolism and the town rejoices in three-day festivities. Tarpon Springs’s streets close and vendors sell crafts,delectable foods and treats.

In the little Greek city of Tarpon Springs, the Epiphany is a grand celebration that begins in the morning with special religious services at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. At noon time, a cavalcade walks from the cathedral to the shores of Spring Bayou a short block’s distance to a crowd of thousands of onlookers and celebrants. At the site of the Epiphany, there are ten small boats that are tied in a semi-circle in front of a platform that extends out over the water. After blessing about 50 young men aged 16 to 18 who dive from the boats, His Eminence the Archbishop goes out onto the platform where he performs a short service and throws a wooden cross into the bayou. Upon the release of the cross into the water, the boys dive in and attempt to retrieve the blessed cross. The young man who surfaces with the cross receives a special blessing for the year until the celebration occurs again the following January. The exceptional young man is also gifted with a gold cross that is placed around his neck, which he expectantly wears until his time on earth has passed. The Greek culture sees this as one of the greatest blessings that could occur for a young man and their family. It is a momentous and lifelong celebrated occasion of pride, gratitude and honor. Following the blessings, the city celebrates at the Sponge Docks with food, dances, entertainment, music and theatrical festivities. The event is broadcast on the front page of the local papers, the news and is a joyous time and occasion for the small town of Tarpon Springs and attendees alike to celebrate and participate in this integral part of Greek culture.

Modern History (Tarpon Springs Today)

Modern Tarpon Springs is riddled with heavy Greek accents, religion, food, culture and is home to approximately 25,000 residents. This historic sponge dock area is a popular tourist attraction and is an operative waterfront that serves as the remaining sponge boats and the large fleet of shrimpers home base. Tarpon Springs still retains its reputation as the largest natural sponge market in the world with an annual revenue of over $5 million. The area south of Anclote River between the sponge docks and the Gulf of Mexico is bayou country that encompasses several derivative waterways that branch off of the main river to give the city its characteristic aesthetics and add to the many charming waterfront neighborhoods. Tarpon Springs is also well known for its fantastical Epiphany celebration that occurs each year on January 6th where the town rejoices in three-day festivities. Today, Tarpon Springs is a beautiful blend of the Victorian-era, small town America and Greek heritage and is an engaging tourist destination with hundreds of shops, bakeries, restaurants and other Greek themed businesses. The beautiful city of Tarpon Springs is scattered with museums, statues, plaques and other history rich attractions which assist in the generation of more than $20 million a year for the local economy and is home to the largest population of Greek Americans in the United States.

Tarpon Springs Famous People

  • Michael Bilirakis, former United States Representative (1983-2007)
  • Gus Bilirakis, United States Representative (2007-present)
  • Chris Coghlan, outfielder for the Miami Marlins, Chicago Cubs and 2009 Rookie of the Year
  • Dieselboy, the electronic music artist
  • Billy “The Kid” Emerson, preacher and former rock and roll pianist and songwriter
  • Elaine Esposito, record holder of the longest coma
  • Wayne Fontes, former NFL coach for the Detroit Lions
  • Bertie Higgins, singer of “Key Largo”
  • William W. Kingsbury,United States House of Representatives, Territorial Delegate from Minnesota Territory
  • Themistocles Leftheris, 2006 Olympian (with Naomi Nari Nam) in pairs figure skating
  • Lois Lenski, Newberry Medal-winning children’s author
  • 2 Pistols, rapper
  • Artavis Scott, Wide Receiver for the Clemson Tigers
  • Mason Cole, offensive tackle for the Michigan Wolverines

Tarpon Springs Attractions

The Greektown Historic District of Tarpon Springs is the city’s primary tourist attraction. It is a unique coastal city and a gem to be seen on Florida’s coast. Tourists stroll the streets, attend Greek festivals, see the beautiful Victorian-era homesand experience the Greek influence. The area along the sponge docks is an engaging tourist destination with hundreds of shops, bakeries, restaurants and other Greek themed businesses. Restaurants feature live entertainment, which include live authentic Greek music andbelly dancing.The area is scattered with museums, statues, plaques and other history rich attractions. A few short blocks away from the sponge docks is Dodecanese Boulevard where historic homes and institutional buildings may be seen. A nice way to spend a warm Florida day is strolling the Tarpon Springs’ streets while taking in the historic beauty. Stop to rest in the shade along the Anclote River under splendidly large oak trees that are as old and majestic as the city’s culture and beauty. There are several sites in Tarpon Springs listed on the National Register of Historic Places such as the Old Tarpon Springs High School, the Old Tarpon Springs City Hall, the Arcade Hotel, Safford House and Rose Hill Cemetery.More adventurous types may visit The Tarpon Springs Aquarium to pet the baby sharks and stingrays and learn about the sea life of the nearby Gulf of Mexico. Or likewise, endeavor in an exploration of the natural estuaries and see the historic lighthouse. Take an escapade on one of the many nature tours, sightseeing tours or sponge diving exhibitions. Some tours even offer an island beach destination where you can see Florida’s nature and look for shells. Sail away for the day on a cruise for dolphin sightseeing, take a fishing trip, or relax and indulge in a robust cigar at the Cigar Cave. Also, don’t forget to visit St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, an adorned,historic building off Pinellas Ave that contributes to the renowned Epiphany celebration each year. Tarpon Springs, Florida is a fabulous destination and vacationing spot where many travel to experience what is known in the America’s as the nostalgic and cultural“Little Greece”.

Image credit: NancyBerrios