Sponge Diving


The two people responsible for starting diving for sponges in America are John K. Cheyney and John M. Cocoris.
Cheyney was a Pennsylvania Dutchman who originally came to Florida in 1882 to invest in land. He and some Penn sylvania associates formed the "Lake Butler Villa Company" which bought sizeable acreage from the State of Florida in and around Tarpon Springs. He prospered and began investing in
other ventures. One of them was sponges.
John M. Cocoris & John K. Cheyney
John M. Cocoris was born in Leonidion, Greece, in 1878. He left Greece and landed in New York City in 1895 and went to work there for the Lembesis Sponge Company. The firm sent him to Tarpon Springs to buy sponges that were harvested by the "hooking" boats. He is said to be the first Creek to come to the area. Cocoris went to work in Cheyney's sponge packing house which is reported to be the first one built in Tarpon Springs. Business flourished. Cheyney was shipping sponges all over
the United States. A publication issued by the U. S. Department of the Interior states that by the year 1901, two brothers of John Cocoris, George and Louis, had arrived in Tarpon Springs from Greece to work with John. This trio harvested sponges along the coast from Tarpon Springs to Key West. In 1902, another brother, Gus, joined them. The Cocoris brothers came from a family that operated its own sponge business in Hydra, Greece. John Cocoris, convinced that the Gulf of Mexico was rich with the "yellow gold", sometimes called the "golden fleece",
convinced Cheyney that much more and better grade sponges could be obtained by importing skilled men and diving equip ment, which is reported never having ever before been used in America, from Greece. In 1904 the first Greek spongers came to Tarpon Springs. There were divers, boat helpers, life line tenders and deck hands. They brought with them diving equipment, plans of the boats used in the Mediterranean, their customs, traditions and
a different way oflife. The Cocoris brothers purchased a fishing boat from William Low for $180. Some reports say it was called "Eldora" while others say "Pandora." They converted it into a diving boat and renamed it ELPIS which in Greek means "hope." Air foi. the divers was supplied by a hand-pump. In February, 1905, or June 18, 1905, the first sponge boat with "mechanized" sponge diving equipment, the "Elpis", hoisted to her mast flags of the United States and Greece and sailed for the sponge beds in the blue waters. The first diver to go overboard was Demo Kavasilos who stayed down ten min utes and brought up his sponge bag full of beautiful wool sponges. His first words were, "There's enough sponges in 5these beds to supply the whole world." By nightfall, the "Elpis"
returned loaded from bow to stern. Financed by Cheyney, the Cocoris brothers built five more diving boats and brought the crews over from the "old country." By the end of the first year, 1500 Greeks had arrived in Tarpon
Springs. They came from the Dodecanese Islands of Aegina, Halki, Calymnos, Symi and others. They brought with them their families, dress, dances and religious observances. Due to Cheyney and the Cocoris brothers a great new enter prise had been founded. The Greek people who developed the industry represent an important Hellenic contribution to the economic growth and life of America. In two short years the spongers had approximately fifty
diving boats and fifty-five new "hook" boats. By 1939, the sponge fleet of Tarpon Springs came to two hundred boats and the spongers numbered over one thousand. In the beginning the names of the boats were Creek, desig-
nating familiar places or personalities of classic history. In later years one could find boats named after American states men like Washington, Lincoln and others. An indication ofhow fully the Greeks had entered into the American spirit. For many years the Hellenic Community at Tarpon Springs had the unique distinction of being the only one in America whose membership constituted a large majority of the city in which it was established. At one time there were more than 2,000 Greek people ofthe 3,500 population. Also, the entire city " and a large portion ofthe county were absolutely dependent for their existence upon the products of the sponge industry in
which the Hellenic people were engaged. On January 14, 1930, President of the United States Calvin Coolidge, visiting the area with his wife, said, "The visit to Tarpon Springs and the sponge industry has been the ·most
interesting part of my Florida trip."


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