Figure 1 Golden Spike ceremony, marking the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, May 10, 1869 in Promontory, Utah.

The month of May is a very significant one in American railroad history, as May 10, 2021 marks the 152nd anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. For this month’s Dining on the Rails post, we are celebrating this monumental anniversary with recipes for “Railroad Cake”.

Considered one of the greatest technological achievements of the 19th Century, the transcontinental railroad got its start with the Pacific Railway Act of 1862.  At that time, the U.S. government offered incentives to railroad companies that were willing to construct a railroad from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean that would create the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. Ultimately, the Union Pacific took the charge from Omaha, Nebraska, while the Central Pacific came from Sacramento, California. The two met on May 10, 1869 at Promontory, Utah. The government funded the construction via bonds and land grants. The construction took 7 years to complete, and was fraught with challenging mountain ranges, conflicts with Native Americans, and severe weather.

A transcontinental railroad allowed people to get from one coast to the other in about a week’s time, instead of the several months it would take by horse, wagon, or by ship. Ships traveled either all the way around Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America, or around Central America through the Isthmus of Panama. Not only were these other options very slow and dangerous, but they were also expensive. In fact, what once was a $1,000 land or sea journey dropped to about $150 when the transcontinental railroad was completed.

Figure 2 Railroad Cake recipe, Godey’s Lady’s Book, February 1869.

So, where does Railroad Cake fit in? This has been a fascinating subject to explore. It began with a simple Google search for “Railroad Cake”, with the thought that there must be such a thing out there. Many results came up for modern train-shaped cakes for a child’s birthday party, but lo and behold, there was also a reference to a historic recipe for “Railroad Cake”. The first historic reference found in this search was in an 1869 publication called Godey’s Lady’s Book, a periodical that contained advice, articles, sewing projects, and recipes for women. As the recipe first appeared in the February of 1869 issue, the initial consensus was that it had to be in honor of the soon-to-be completed transcontinental railroad. Alas, this was not true.

It turns out that Railroad Cake dates back to at least 1850 and was supposedly called that due to its portability. There are a few versions of Railroad Cake, most of which seem to be a solid pound cake, but some are more like a soda bread consistency with raisins or nuts added to a very bread-like dough, rather than a cake batter. Still, other recipes describe more of a jellyroll style of cake, with the idea that the roll goes “‘round and ‘round” like a railroad. Yet another version, only found in a picture from an unknown cookbook on the internet, shows a cake with two “rails” on it, but we have had no luck finding a recipe for this cake or its origins.

Figure 3 “Railroad Cake” from an unknown cookbook.

Unfortunately, the details of the first appearance of Railroad Cake are not known. In the early days of railroads, passengers were responsible for bringing their own food to eat on the journey. Later, eating houses were established along routes, and even later, dining cars were introduced. However, up until the 1860s, many people brought their own food. Thus, it makes sense that women might bake their husbands or family some form of sturdy bread or cake for their journey. Nothing too crumbly or gooey, but a solid, simple cake that traveled well… Hence, the Railroad Cake!

If you try any of the recipes in this blog, please share them on our Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter accounts, and let us know how it tastes!

Baking instructions for Railroad Cake: Take one cup of flour, one cup of sugar, and mix; add three eggs, one teaspoon full of cream tartar, and half a teaspoon of soda; bake quick, but don't burn.

Past Dining on the Rails Posts:
Dining on the Rails: AT&SF Ham
Dining on the Rails: CRI&P’s New England Boiled Dinner
Dining on the Rails: A Sweet Treat for your Valentine!
Dining on the Rails: Black Eyed Peas!
Dining on the Rails: Eggnog
Dining on the Rails: Happy Thanksgiving!
Dining on the Rails: Union Pacific Apple Pie
Dining on the Rails, August 2020
Dining on the Rails, July 2020
Dining on the Rails, June 14, 2020
Dining on the Rails, June 7, 2020
Dining on the Rails, May 31, 2020
Dining on the Rails, May 24, 2020
Dining on the Rails, May 17, 2020
Dining on the Rails, May 10, 2020
Dining on the Rails, May 3, 2020
Dining on the Rails, April 26, 2020
Dining on the Rails, April 19, 2020
Dining on the Rails, April 12, 2020

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