Author Deborah Cramer asks were there plentiful horseshoe crabs in Gloucester? Leads to Winslow Homer, John Bell, and Cher Ami

Deborah Cramer thanks Good Morning Gloucester for mentioning her book and asks for photographs and stories about horseshoe crabs, otherwise known as the nearly scene stealing co-stars from her inspiring book on red knots (sandpiper shorebirds), The Narrow Edge.

“I’m in the midst of a project right now trying to uncover the almost forgotten history of the whereabouts of horseshoe crabs in Gloucester.  I’ve heard some fantastic stories, like one from a man who used to go down to Lobster Cove after school and find horseshoe crabs so plentiful he could fill a dory. Do you think there’s a value to putting up a few pictures on GMG and asking people to send in their recollections of beaches, coves where they used to see them in abundance?”

We do. Please send in photos or stories if you have them about horseshoe crabs in Gloucester or the North Shore for Deborah Cramer’s project. Write in comments below and/or email

Here’s one data point. Look closely at this 1869 Winslow Homer painting. Can you spot the horseshoe crabs? Can you identify the rocks and beach?

Winslow Homer Rocky Coast and Gulls (manchester)
Winslow Homer, Rocky Coast and Gulls, 1869, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, installed in room #234 with so many other Homers (Fog Warning, All’s Well, Driftwood, …)
zoomed into horseshoe crabs (detail )
(zoomed into horseshoe crabs)

cr 2015 mfa


While reading The Narrow Edge, and looking at Kim Smith’s Piping Plover photographs, I thought about Raid on a Sand Swallow Colony (How Many Eggs?) 1873 by Homer and how some things change while much remains the same.When my sons were little, they were thrilled with the first 1/3 or so of Swiss Family Robinson.  As taken as they were with the family’s ingenuity, adventure, and tree house–they recoiled as page after page described a gorgeous new bird, promptly shot. They wouldn’t go for disturbing eggs in a wild habitat. The title ascribed to this Homer, perhaps the eager query from the clambering youngest boy, feels timeless. Was the boys’ precarious gathering sport, study, or food? What was common practice with swallows’ eggs in the 1860s and 70s? Homer’s birds are diminutive and active, but imprecise. Homer sometimes combined place, figures, subject and themes. One thing is clear: the composition, line and shadow are primed and effective for an engraving.


Homer watercolor 1873

Harper’s Weekly published the image on June 13, 1875. Artists often drew directly on the edge grain of boxwood and a master engraver (Lagrade in this case) removed the wood from pencil and wash lines.

Winslow Homer


2016. Wingaersheek dunes and nests 140+ years later.



Besides Homer, Deborah’s book had me thinking about Chris Leahy, where I first heard about the history of Ma Audubon and our state’s bragging rights. It had me dig out photographs of a visit to Harvard where reproductions of the dodo and auk skeletons made us as sad as Swiss Family Robinson, and to wonder about Deborah Dickson’s documentary on sculptor Todd McGrain, which I haven’t seen yet.


“Gone and nearly forgotten in extinction, the Labrador Duck, the Great Auk, the Heath Hen, the Carolina Parakeet, and the Passenger Pigeon leave holes not just in the North American landscape but in our collective memories. Moved by their stories, sculptor Todd McGrain set out to create memorials to the lost birds—to bring their vanished forms back into the world.”

I must thank Deborah Cramer for another Gloucester prompt. Last year while visiting Mass Moca for business, I happened upon the ECLIPSE exhibit by Elizabeth Kolbert, the New Yorker writer, in collaboration with the duo, Sayler/Morris. It was a gorgeous, elegiac passenger pigeon multi-media tribute. Coincidentally it was Earth Day. I immediately wrote John Bell, because he had spoken with me about Gloucester’s Cher Ami, which I promised to write about.

Does anyone remember Cher Ami and homing pigeons of Gloucester? Let me know.

For more on Deborah Cramer, and to listen to her being interviewed by Meghna Chakrabarti, please continue:

Kayaking through the North  Shore’s Great Marsh,” with Deborah Cramer and Radio Boston’s Meghna Chakrabarti, about the marshes of West Gloucester

Great Waters: An Atlantic Passage (W.W. Norton)

Smithsonian Ocean: Our Water Our World (Harper Collins/Smithsonian Books)

“The Heart of the Ocean,” Face to Face: Ocean Portraits, (Conway) and “La Coeur de la Mer,” Hommes et Femmes de la Mer (Arthaud)

“Climate and Atlantic,” Penguin Book of the Ocean (Penguin)

The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey”   (Yale University Press)  Winner 2016 Reed Award in Environmental Writing

from US Fish and Wildlife – horshoe crabs, Delaware

US Fish and Wildlife Service Delaware


39 thoughts on “Author Deborah Cramer asks were there plentiful horseshoe crabs in Gloucester? Leads to Winslow Homer, John Bell, and Cher Ami

  1. Thanks for covering this. I have often wondered what happened to the horseshoe crabs here. When I was a child in the 1960s I used to see them often in the clear shallow water near what is now Cape Ann Marina on Essex Avenue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Anonymous, Thank you so very much! Do you remember where on the Mill River you saw the horseshoe crabs? What were “lots?” Some people remember seeing a few each season, others remember having to step over them when they went into the water? Were the horseshoe crabs you saw alive? You can answer here, of if you’d prefer, write the Catherine, and she can forward your e-mail to me. Again, this information is so valuable. Thank you….

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Joey C, thanks so much for this extra clarification! Do you remember how many horseshoe crabs you’d see at one time? No need for an exact number of anything. Some people saw one or two, others would see dozens at a time. Were they in pairs digging in the sand to lay their eggs? Was this during the day or at night? Very, very cool. Again, thank you, as I try to piece together this history.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Steve, Thank you for this memory! Do you mean what Joey describes, seeing the horseshoe crabs on Wonson Cove Beach to the left of the Rocky Neck causeway? Were they in the water? Or did you also see them on the beach digging into the sand to lay their eggs? Do you remember how many you’d see on the beach at one time? Again, many, many thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Cher Ami was on Washington Street near scalifani’s and homing pigeons were in Riverdale on Stanwood Ave and I believe there is still a pigeon club there

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Catherine, how lovely of you to post my request – thank you! Sagamorgan, had the sewage treatment plant been built when you were seeing the horseshoe crabs? Do you remember what time of year it was? I am so, so excited to hear this information.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Deborah the sewage plant was definitely not there when I lived at 115 Essex Ave in 1963. I’m sure it was summertime when I saw the horseshoe crabs. I loved to amble down the road to observe nature and probably found the marsh down there to be very interesting. I remember learning that the crabs were among the very very oldest creatures on earth. I shared this GMH article on FB and many classmates said they remember seeing the crabs on Wingaersheek Beach. Another friend remembers seeing a lot of them at Niles Beach and says she has a friend who sees babies every summer here and will let me know. That would be amazing. Also, I came upon a cool bronze sculpture of one embedded in a big rock at the Cox Reservation in Essex on the marsh. This spring when I looked it appears to have been removed! Not even the sculptures survive around here sadly!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sagamorgan! Again, so many thanks. Yes, in The Narrow Edge I wrote about horseshoe crabs are among the very oldest creatures on earth. And as more fossils are found, they get older. Right now, the oldest evidence of a horseshoe crab is from a fossil that’s 475 million years old. Thank you for sharing this article on FB; I’m doing the same. If your friends who remember the horseshoe crabs on Wingaersheek would be willing to let us know when they saw them, what part of the beach, i.e. facing the water, to the left or right of the rocks, whether the crabs were alive, and whether they were swimming around or digging in the sand on the beach to lay their eggs. Also, thanks for following up on the Niles Beach sightings as well, and the possibility of seeing babies every summer now! That would be amazing, and wonderful. Sometimes people are seeing, not the horseshoe crabs themselves, but the molts. That’s good to know too. Again, thank you and thank you.


  4. I grew up in East Gloucester in the 1950s. Our house was at 269 East Main Street, just a block from Rocky Neck. Harry Mayo lived a few houses nearer to the neck, and he had a pier in back of his house. We kids used to scout around under it at low tide, and we often saw horseshoe crabs there. One of my treasures as a kid was a nearly perfect horseshoe crab cuticle, shed by a fair small specimen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Christa, thank you so much for adding to the record of horseshoe crabs in East Gloucester. If you had a moment, do you mean that the pier off Harry Mayo’s house was in Smith Cove, and that’s where you saw the horseshoe crabs? Were they alive? Were they in the water? On the mud/sand? I love the translucent molts from tiny horseshoe crabs–they are so beautiful…


    1. Cher Ami was an ice cream parlor for readers who might not know of this Gloucester establishment.

      In case this jogs your memory, I wondered about the French name and liked that it was nearby Joan of Arc. Along with Washington St racing club, two people mentioned pigeons back by Gould.


    2. Bonnie, Thank you for this additional information! I apologize for having a senior moment here, but would you be able to give me the address of Boley Motors or another detail so I can picture the place you are describing? And can you tell me, as you hold the image of what you used to see, what you mean by abundant? Thanks so very much…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. In the late 1950s ~ 1960s daily summer walks down Rocky Neck, I saw 100’s of them low tide, at the shore area between The Studio and Rocky Neck Accomodations. However, it seems to me walking there with my children in the late 1970s there were not many and the number has continued to decline.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mary. Thank you and everyone for taking a moment to contribute. Deborah, thanks so much for your outreach for this fascinating project.

      When I was young 60s and 70s I remember seeing one here and there in Gloucester and at Whitehorse and Priscilla in Plymouth. Of late, and insignificant for a data point though it may be, say in the last 12 year span–on two separate Long Beach visits we inspected a single, dead horseshoe crab.


      1. Catherine, Thank you for your observation about Long Beach. It will be interesting to see if anyone writes in about a history of horseshoe crabs there….

        Liked by 1 person

        1. We see sandpipers–since reading your book I’m trying to note time/look carefully (and give them space. They are so winning it was tempting to go close.)


    2. Mary McLoud Tucker, Thank you so much for this recollection, for the number of horseshoe crabs and the specific location. I’m deeply appreciative. It’s interesting that you saw them at low tide. What were they doing? And were they alive? And the shore area where you saw them back the, was it mostly sand, or mud? Again, so many thanks. I think the number of horseshoe crabs has declined. It’s my hope that if we piece together what used to be here, we might find a way for them to come back. Again, so many thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. For that area, low tide meant no water. The bottom was more muddy looking than sandy. I expect if you went there today the bottom would be the same. They were alive ~ some were “busy” others in wait. I might add, since prior post you mentioned a sewer plant ~ the plentiful sightings were prior to the plumbing and building renovations to the Accomodations. As well, during that time, the Marina was always full of boats. Not sure if that is a connection for you. Does that account for the decline or were they thriving under those conditions ~ more thoughts for your consideration.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Beautiful post and what a great layout the memories are so special! Take about a crowded beach there (Delaware) horseshoe crabs! 🙂 Dave & Kim 🙂


  7. Catherine, You have put together a beautiful post, the memories coming in are fantastic, and I am so grateful to you for doing this and to everyone who is replying. Your posting the Winslow Homer reminded me that there may be other references to this history in either literature or paintings or histories. When might you reveal the beach in the painting? I’m thinking of a few possibilities, but haven’t gone down to compare the painting to the reality yet!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s you, Deborah! still nice to write, thanks. My hope is that it may suss out more for your research. Artists/writers is my personal approach and background.That particular painting is matched with Manchester. I am mad for provenance and skeptical by profession (not weighing in, yet.) And there’s so much to say about Homer…

      Thanks so much to the readers and GMG community. It’s so fun to have this glimpse. Hopefully comments will continue to roll in.


  8. I would often see horseshoe crabs out in the middle of the Essex Bay, in the water that runs between the big sandbars. I never saw lots of them at once, but almost every time I swam out there I would see one or two. Circa 1985-1990.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Deborah, my granddaughter found a recently dead young horseshoe crab when we went for a picnic on the far end of Crane’s Beach next to the Essex River. It was on the edge of the dune behind us. There had recently been really high tides.
    It’s not Gloucester, but it’s nearby.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nancy, thanks, and nice to hear from you. And yes, the southern tip of Crane Beach is in Ipswich, but alot of Essex Bay and its estuaries are also Gloucester, so thank you.


  10. Hi Deborah… Lynn Margulis passed on your great ocean book to me. She told great stories of horseshoe crabs–still happens near Sippsewisset– ‘seeding’ microbial mat communities as they picked them up on their legs while mating on/near the salt marches.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sybil, Thanks so much for writing. I cited Lynn Margulis’s work in Great Waters – her essential contribution to our understanding of how live evolved is truly magnificent. As for the horseshoe crabs, I just spent an entire day in the Little Sippewissett Marsh looking at baby and juvenile horseshoe crabs. I so, so want to see some up here. Do you know where Lynn Margulis wrote about horseshoe crabs “seeding” microbial mat communities? I would love to read that.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Fell upon this article and wanted to share an experience. On 05-27-20 my son and I were fishing at top of Point of Pines beach in Revere and horseshoe crabs were everywhere in one specific area. Was 2 to 4 ft of water and we counts 54 at one point just standing in water! Awesome to see as they aren’t seen like they used to be as often.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Kristofer Adams- what a great encounter for you and your son! thanks for reading and sharing. Did you take a picture?

      Deborah Cramer asked me to relay how grateful she is to hear this good news: “Does he remember what time he saw the horseshoe crabs and what the tide was doing?”


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