The rich history of Tarpon Springs, Florida stretches back one hundred-fifty years, when the earliest settlers arrived at the end of the Civil War to build a life along the banks of the beautiful Anclote River. This thriving settlement called Anclote was imortant to the history of Tarpon Springs and its development.
One early settler in the area was William L. Thompson, who arrived with his family in 1864 from Hamilton County in northern Florida. The Thompsons homesteaded a patch of land about three miles south of the Tarpon Springs area, where they built a cabin and planted crops, including some of the first citrus grown in the region. It was twelve years later when the Ormonds arrived in what is now Tarpon Springs, and settled near Spring Bayou.
Hastening the development of Tarpon Springs as well as the settlement of much of Florida’s southern half, was the shrewd real estate purchase by Hamilton Disston, a wealthy saw manufacturer from Philadelphia. Disston purchased four million acres of state land for twenty-five cents an acre, taking advantage of a financially distressed post-Civil War Florida Internal Improvement Fund, which had been established in 1855 to administer the sale of Florida's public lands.
In 1882, Major Mathew R. Marks, a civil engineer from Orlando, arrived to lay out the streets of Tarpon Springs at Disston’s behest. Arriving on Marks’ heels was Anson P.K. Safford, a business acquaintance of Disston and president of Disston’s newly formed Lake Butler Villa Company, headquartered in Tarpon Springs.
Safford, fresh from successful political careers in California, Nevada, and the Arizona Territory, thrived as one of Tarpon Springs’ leading citizens. No doubt inspired by his achievement in establishing the Arizona public school system, he built Tarpon Springs’ first school and gave land to several churches. His sister, Dr. Mary Jane Safford, who had studied in New York and Vienna, became Florida’s first practicing female physician upon joining her brother's family in Tarpon Springs and opening her own private practice there.
Disston’s promotional activities drew three hundred settlers within a handful of years. Business owners worked together to promote Tarpon Springs as a resort destination for relaxation and health, and by early 1887, voters agreed to make Tarpon Springs the first incorporated city on the Pinellas peninsula. The same year, President Grover Cleveland ordered the construction of the one hundred-foot tall Anclote Key Lighthouse, one of a chain designed to help protect the American coastline.
Perhaps one of Tarpon Springs’ most significant events of 1887 was the arrival of the first railroad, the Orange Belt Railway. After a years-long drive headed by Peter Demens, an immigrant from St. Petersburg, Russia, the railroad opened the doors to economic development for not only Tarpon Springs, but for the entire Pinellas peninsula. Prior to the railroad’s arrival, the only way to reach the city was by boat , a circuitous train and steamboat route, or overland by oxcart, wagon, or horseback from Tampa.
The establishment of the commercial sponge industry in Tarpon Springs in 1890 changed the city forever. Newly arrived American settlers had discovered sponges in the Florida Keys during the 1820s. By the mid-nineteenth century, spongers in the Keys had organized a commercial sponging operation, using long poles with grapples to harvest the sponges.
In 1873 Key West turtle fishermen, struggling with nets fouled by sponges off the mouth of the Anclote River, discovered Florida’s sprawling west coast sponge beds. Spongers came to the area to work the beds, and some settled here permanently. In 1890 John Cheyney, a Tarpon Springs businessman, established the Anclote River and Rock Island Sponge Company across the river from the city. During the 1890s, sponge-packing houses grew up around the streets of Tarpon Springs, spongers installed commercial presses, and sponge buyers opened shops locally. Gradually the sponge business shifted from Key West, Cuba, and the Bahamas to Tarpon Springs, and by 1900, our city had grown to be the largest sponge port in the United States.
It was, however, Greek immigrants who expanded and refined the sponging industry in Tarpon Springs. The individual behind the Greek involvement was John Corcoris, a sponge buyer for a New York firm, who arrived in Tarpon in 1896. He went to work for John Cheyney, financier of Corcoris' early efforts to improve the industry’s efficiency. In 1905 Corcoris introduced the first mechanized sponge fishing boat to Tarpon Springs and brought in five hundred divers from the Greek islands of Kalymnos, Halki, Symi, Hydra, Spetse, Aegena and other islands. More Greeks soon followed and businesses sprang up to serve the Greek community, including restaurants, candy shops, coffee houses, and grocery stores. Sponge merchants and brokers arrived in Tarpon Springs, helping to create a well-integrated industry. They built boats, loaned money to boat owners, and supplied tools and equipment to the entire sponge fleet. In 1906 the Sponge Exchange Bank was established, and in 1908 the Sponge Exchange was founded. Profits from sponging also financed other businesses, such as the Sponge Exchange Cigar Company.
By 1910 Tarpon Springs was home to an ice plant, an electric plant, two lumber mills, cigar factories, several banks, and a post office. Construction continued with the Tarpon Springs High School built in 1912, the waterworks in 1914, and the new City Hall opening its doors in 1915.
Florida’s Boom Times formed the backdrop for Tarpon Springs’ own real estate boom and explosion in tourism that characterized Florida during the 1920s. New subdivisions dotted the landscape, tripling the area of the original town. Many notable buildings shot up, including the Sunset Hills Country Club, Arcade Hotel, a new high school, an amusement pier, a water plant, and the city's first hospital. The local real estate industry created an exchange to stimulate additional development in the area.
Unfortunately, Tarpon Springs also experienced the bust of the Florida land boom in 1926. Coupled with that was a hurricane that devastated south Florida in September, which exacerbated the state's economic woes. By the end of the decade, Tarpon felt the Depression’s full effects . Through this, the sponge industry prospered, but in 1938 blight infested the sponge beds and many of the sponges died, dealing a heavy blow to the Sponge Capital of the World.
Tourism has replaced sponging as Tarpon Springs’ primary economic activity. Thousands of visitors come to the city each year to enjoy the outdoors, to play a round of golf or enjoy a day of fishing. Thousands crowd the Sponge Docks to experience Greek culture and to enjoy Greek food, to spend an afternoon shopping for art and antiques, or to tour our enchanting Victorian neighborhoods