Tarpon Springs' Sponge Industry
The beginning of the sponge industry for Tarpon Springs actually started in Key West in the early 19th century. Many fishermen would find the sponges washed ashore after storms. This led to the development of the “hook boats”. This was a boat that used a log pole with a three or four prong rake at the end to hook sponges from shallow waters.
The sponge industry boomed in the Key West area, when a sample shipment was sent to New York City in 1849, and they were easily sold. At this point, Key West was the only area that had established any sponge business. But, this soon changed when the sponge divers had harvest the sponges from the seas surrounding Key West, they moved further north and found large beds filled with different varieties. Soon after this event, the Key West sponge fleet moved to the Tarpon Springs area.
John Cheney, a New York business man, recognized the potential success of the sponge industry in Tarpon Springs. With the help of John Corcosis, John Cheney started the first sponge business in the area. Corcosis insisted on bringing Greek divers to the area to begin the sponge industry. In 1905, the first Greek colony was established in Tarpon Springs. Greek sponge divers began moving in large packs to Tarpon Springs in hopes of becoming rich, especially since in Greece the sponge industry was starting to plummet.
By the end of 1906, 1500 Greek sponge divers and workers had arrived in Tarpon Springs. The sponge industry grew tremendously in the 1920's and 1930's with a fleet of about 200 ships. In 1936, Tarpon Springs became recognized as the sponge capital of the world, and more that 2,000 Greeks had moved to the area. However, in 1946, a disease (red tide) attacked the sponges and killed almost all of the sponges. Then, the invention of the synthetic sponge also devastated the Florida sponge industry. By the 1960's and 1970's the sponge industry began to rebound, but the Mediterranean sponge divers were the leaders of the industry. But, in 1986, the Mediterranean sponges were exposed to a disease and nearly all sponges in the Aegean sea were destroyed. This cleared the path for Tarpon Springs to once again claim its title as the “Sponge Capital of the World”.