One of our favorite day trips in Florida is up I-75 to a small Tampa Bay town known for its Greek food and sponges. Right outside of Tampa and about an hour and a half from Sarasota, Tarpon Springs never lets me down. When we first moved to Florida and everything was new, this was one of the places we discovered. The smell of Greek food and salt water fill the air of this charming town known for its sponges. The Sponge Industry helped build a Greek Community in Tarpon Springs.
The first settlers in the area of Tarpon Springs came in 1876 and named settlement after the fish that inhabited the area. Unknown to them though, those fish that leaped out of the water were actually mullet, not tarpon! The name however, stuck.
In 1880, a wealthy saw manufacture, Hamilton Disston, saved the State of Florida from bankruptcy by purchasing 4 million acres from the Governor at 25 cents an acre. This purchase included Tarpon Springs. Four years late, a post office was established and soon the railroad followed. Disston, through investments, fashioned Tarpon Springs into an exclusive winter resort for wealthy Northerners. Think Dirty Dancing, if you will.
Even though Tarpon Springs was successful as a resort, they discovered that money could be made by harvesting the sponge growing in its Gulf waters. And it wasn’t long before sponging became the area’s most important industry. The sponge industry was well established in Tarpon Springs by 1890 with almost a million dollars worth of sponges being sold that same year.
The next few years brought experienced divers from Greece and with the immigration, Greek culture. The early sponge divers, which in 1905 consisted of about 50 boats and 500 men, created the need at the docks for crews to eat. As the industry grew, so did the number of tourist coming to the docks to see sponges. Shops opened and the Tarpon Springs we know now saw its early foundations laid as the need for souvenir sponges arose.
With the advancement of diving technology, divers were able to deeper and for longer lengths of time, increasing the profit of the sponging industry. For 30 years, the sponge industry was the largest industry in Florida and earning Tarpon Springs the title of “Sponge Capital of the World.” Sponging was larger than citrus AND tourism during this time.
By the 1940’s however, the industry took a hit in the form of blight. This mildew disease reduced the growth of sponges and in just 10 years the sponging industry was nearly wiped out. In the 1980’s new sponge beds were found and Tarpon Springs is now back to being a leader in the sponge world.
Today, Tarpon Springs attracts people from all over who are looking for a bit of adventure, Old Florida history, and good food. Visitors can see first hand the sponge harvesting experience and the Greek influence. The Greek Village at the Sponge Docks gives visitors coming to Tarpon Springs shops and restaurants to explore each with that Old Florida flair that hasn’t been hit by conglomerates or chain stores yet. And with so many restaurants and bakeries within walking distance, lunch is never something you have to worry about, just picking which one of the amazing authentic Greek kitchens will grace your pallet with delicious food.
A variety of sightseeing cruises are always ready to take you out into the bay yo explore the waters and visit the historic lighthouse. With cruises covering everything from nature tours, sponge diving expeditions, deep sea fishing, and dolphin cruises there is something for everyone in the family.
Spring Bayou, the site of the original settlement in the area provides a look at the past as you stroll along the winding streets. The mark of wealthy visitors can be seen in the grandeur of homes who became winter homes for those looking to escape harsh winters.
So many events are happening in Tarpon Springs during the year, from arts shows to Greek festivals, there is always something going on in the seaside streets.
Do you have any great Tarpon Springs tips or favorite spots? Let us know in the comments.