CBMM to Acquire Historic Crab Claw Properties

The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is pleased to announce its intent to acquire two contiguous properties to its waterfront campus, including the current home of the Crab Claw Restaurant. Under the terms of the transaction, the restaurant will remain open for business throughout the 2023 season under its current ownership.

“This anticipated purchase marks an exciting new step in CBMM’s ongoing efforts to enhance our guests’ experience as part of our on-going Master Plan campus upgrades,” said CBMM President & CEO Kristen Greenaway. “We highly value our role as a community partner, and we’re delighted to be able to keep the properties in the St. Michaels’ family and serve as stewards of these historic properties moving forward.

“We believe that CBMM is the best possible owner for this longtime staple of our community, and we thank Crab Claw owner Tracey Jones Wass and her family for entrusting it to us.”

Adding the properties to CBMM’s campus is a natural fit, both in terms of their neighboring physical locations and shared history. The Crab Claw Restaurant opened in 1965, the same year CBMM did, and the two have stood side by side as staples of St. Michaels for decades.

CBMM is pleased to announce its future acquisition of two contiguous properties to its waterfront campus, including the current home of the Crab Claw Restaurant. Photograph c. 1970s. Collection of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

“Generations growing up in St. Michaels have worked at the Crab Claw as their first job, learning customer service and an appreciation for the classic seafood dishes of a Maryland crab house,” said CBMM’s Chief Historian Pete Lesher. “But the property’s roots go back even further, with the first pier in that location showing up on an atlas from 1877 and the town’s steamboat wharf, including a one-story building with a cupola, standing on the site by the 1890s.

This map outlines the two properties that are set to be acquired by CBMM through this purchase. Map via Google Earth.

“The restaurant itself, an outgrowth of the Eastern Shore Clam Company, opened almost in tandem with CBMM, and we’re very excited to be able to write the next chapter in this iconic property’s long history.”

CBMM will now begin the planning process for future use of the properties, which have such significance to the past, present, and future of the St. Michaels waterfront.

The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is a non-profit educational organization that preserves and explores the history, environment, and culture of the entire Chesapeake Bay region, and makes this resource accessible to all.

Every aspect of fulfilling this mission is driven by CBMM’s values of relevance, authenticity, and stewardship, along with a commitment to providing engaging guest experiences and transformative educational programming, all while serving as a vital community partner. For more information, visit cbmm.org or call 410-745-2916.

A Brief History of the Crab Claw Restaurant

Compiled by CBMM’s Chief Historian Pete Lesher

As Maryland crabs grew in popularity during the 20th century, a new type of restaurant emerged—the open-air waterfront crab house. Some had indoor seating, but outdoor seating, close to the waters that produced the crabs, was typical. The staple of these restaurants was steamed crabs, always steamed with a hot spice mix: Old Bay, for example, or whatever custom spice mix the crab house created as part of its brand. Because picking crabs is a messy endeavor, the tables were typically covered in brown craft paper, which eased the cleanup job—the crab waste got rolled up in the paper for disposal.

The site of the Crab Claw restaurant goes back to at least 1877 when it appears on the Lake, Griffing, & Stevenson Atlas of Talbot & Dorchester Counties. At that point, there is clearly a pier—a solid extension of land—on the site. By the 1890s, the town’s steamboat wharf, including a one-story building with a cupola, stood on the site. By the 1920s, the steamboat wharf structure was demolished and replaced by petroleum tanks, which remained on the site until the mid-20th century.

The Crab Claw restaurant grew out of the Eastern Shore Clam Company, which originally occupied the cinder block first story of the current building. Eastern Shore Clam Company was founded in 1959 by a partnership of William (Bill) Jones and Edward (Ed) H. Higgins and incorporated in 1962.

When CBMM opened to the public in 1965 on the adjacent property, Jones’ wife, Sylvia, proposed a restaurant featuring steamed crabs. They constructed a second story over the Clam Company building, and it’s believed to have opened to the public in 1965. We’re told that they originally named it the Crab Pot, but someone else claimed the trademark on that brand, so they changed it to the Crab Claw.

Higgins did not share in the restaurant operation. Ultimately, Jones took sole ownership of the property. As business grew, they expanded to an open-air bar and waterside deck on the first story. The Clam Company continued to operate into the 1980s, and as it tapered off, Jones kept a wholesale seafood business going on the waterfront—watermen would come off the Miles River, tie up to the Crab Claw, and sell directly to him.

While steamed crabs has been what the restaurant is best known for, the Crab Claw has long offered the variety of seafood dishes that might be expected of a Maryland crab house—crab cakes, clam strips, fish filets offered as either sandwiches or entrees, scallops, and the like. The Jones family has their own proprietary crab cake recipe, as you might expect for a seafood restaurant.

When both CBMM and the Crab Claw opened, the owner of the Perry Cabin Farm, Edward Watkins, rented the edge of one of his fields to each for their parking lots. When Watkins sold Perry Cabin to CBMM in 1976, the sale was conditioned on CBMM selling the section used by the Crab Claw to the restaurant.

CBMM did so, retaining an easement across the waterfront to connect the two sides of CBMM’s expanded campus. For years, the Crab Claw parking lot was paved with fresh clam shells or oyster shells—a byproduct of the business. The shells were freshly shucked, and the odor of freshly spread shell could be quite powerful.

Neither Bill nor Sylvia Jones is still living, but the restaurant has continued in operation by its second-generation owner, Tracey Jones Wass. Generations growing up in St. Michaels have worked at the Crab Claw as their first job, learning customer service and developing an appreciation for classic Maryland seafood.

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