Gulf of Mexico Sponge Warehouse
Backstory and Context
Following the Civil War, African American families moved to Tarpon Springs to work in lumber mills, citrus groves, and the fledgling sponge industry. Black spongers contributed heavily to this new economy. In the 1890s, families from Key West, the Bahamas, and other Caribbean islands migrated to Tarpon Springs to work in the sponge trade. Among the first to harvest sponges in the region, black spongers used a technique known as “hooking.” On clear, calm days, men worked in small dinghies and scanned the ocean floor using a glass bottom bucket. Fishermen then used a long pole with a hook to tear the sponge free from the ocean floor. They primarily fished sponge beds in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Anclote River.
In 1896, John Chenyey hired John Cocoris to improve productivity at the Rock Island Sponge Company. Cocoris, a Greek immigrant and sponge buyer, advocated adopting sponging methods already common in Greece. In 1905, Cocoris recruited 500 Greek spongers and their families to immigrate to the area and imported the first motorized sponge boats into Tarpon Springs. Wearing metal helmets fed by a compressed air line, Greek divers harvested sponges growing in deeper waters. With the influx of Greek divers, many African American spongers worked on Greek-owned boats, as crew and sometimes as divers. Additionally, many black spongers learned the Greek language.
The introduction of helmet diving forever changed Tarpon Springs, both economically and culturally. The industry thrived until the 1940s, when disease decimated sponge beds, which took several decades to recover. Today, the legacy of the sponge industry remains vital to the identity of Tarpon Springs and is an integral component of its tourist economy.