Tarpon Springs is a small city of slightly less than 25,000 people on Florida's west coast about 30 miles northwest of Tampa.
The main north-south thoroughfare is Alternate US-19, known locally as Pinellas Avenue. The historic sponge dock area is a popular tourist attraction located along the Anclote River west of Pinellas Avenue. It is also a working waterfront that's home to the remaining sponge boats and the large fleet of shrimpers.
The area south of the river between the sponge docks and the Gulf of Mexico is bayou country. Several arms that branch off the main river give the city its unique look and many charming waterfront neighborhoods.
John Cheyney founded the first sponge business in Tarpon Springs in the 1880s and it provided quite a few jobs for the local economy. The sponges were harvested off the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico using surface boats and long poles to bring up the sponges. In 1905 John Cocoris came to town and introduced sponge diving to the industry. This deep sea diving technique used a special suit and a diving helmet with air pumped in from a compressor on the boat.
He brought in divers from Greece and the sponge industry soon became one of the biggest businesses in Florida and required more and more divers. Many of the original divers came from the Dodecanese Islands of Kalymnos, Symi and Halki. The street that runs along the sponge docks on the river is named Dodecanese Boulevard. Tarpon Springs now has the highest percentage of Greek-American citizens of any city in the United States.
The area along the sponge docks is an interesting tourist destination with hundreds of shops, bakeries, restaurants and other businesses with mostly Greek themes. It somehow comes off as more than your average Florida tourist trap because of its sprinkling of museums, statues, plaques and other reminders of the area's unique history. Not only that, the locals are abundant in the neighborhood and you will hear a lot of Greek being spoken. It's a great place to have appetizers at one restaurant, then another appetizer at a second and an entree at a third, followed by baked goods and wine or coffee at yet another. There is something for everyone on Dodecanese Boulevard - even an abundance of sponges.
There is an entirely different world when you get a few blocks away from the sponge docks and Dodecanese Boulevard. Tarpon Springs has done a great job of preserving many of its historic homes and institutional buildings. It's fun spending most of a day just wandering around the streets in the bayou country on the south side of the Anclote River. Although there are many new homes on the bayous, the city has established several historic districts within the city limits and you will see many well preserved old buildings.
Several sites in Tarpon Springs are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Old Tarpon Springs High School and the Old Tarpon Springs City Hall. There is a vibrant downtown area several blocks south of the sponge docks along Tarpon Avenue for a few blocks east of Pinellas Avenue.