Once, when people traveled by rail, there was a delicacy that you simply had to have if you could get it: the famous Berwick sponge cake. When the Boston & Maine stopped in North Berwick, Maine, travelers got off and headed for a tiny restaurant nearby. There they would buy the light and lemony confection.
Charles Dickens, during his 1868 tour of America, made his acquaintance with the Berwick famous sponge cake on his way from Portland to Boston. Eleven-year-old Kate Smith (later Kate Douglas Wiggin) happened to travel on the same train as the writer she revered. When the train stopped in North Berwick, she looked out the window and saw Charles Dickens standing on the platform. Years later, she remembered,
His hands were plunged deep in his pockets (a favorite gesture), but presently one was removed to wave away laughingly a piece of the famous Berwick sponge cake, offered him by Mr. Osgood, of Boston, his travelling companion and friend.
In 1901, Domestic Science Monthly magazine lamented the disappearance of the famous Berwick sponge cake. A reader wrote that she still made it from the original recipe. Even today, you can find Internet recipes for the famous Berwick sponge cake, long after the Boston & Maine stopped dropping passengers off in North Berwick.
Origin of the Famous Berwick Sponge Cake
North Berwick, as a gateway to Maine, got quite a lot of rail traffic. After 1873, the Western and Eastern Divisions of the Boston & Maine crossed in North Berwick, according to the North Berwick Historical Society.
That 1901 story in Domestic Science Monthly recounts how in 1845 a Boston & Providence clerk named William C. Briggs lost his leg in a railroad accident in Maine. Those early railroads could barely afford to defend damage suits. But Briggs said,
“Build me a restaurant in North Berwick, and stop every train five minutes there, and I won’t sue.”
So the railroad built a restaurant, and Mrs. Briggs made sponge cake according to a secret recipe. The cake became famous, and the Briggses shipped it all over the United States in boxes.
In 20 years Briggs retired, rich, but lost all his money in speculation. The restaurant closed, and “no one now knows the secret of the Berwick sponge cake.”
But an alert reader from Rockland, Maine, wrote to the Domestic Science Monthly with the old Berwick sponge cake recipe:
Beat 6 eggs 2 min. Add 3 c. sugar and beat 2 min. 1 1/2 c. flour with 2 tsp. of cream of tartar; beat 1 min. Add 1 c. cold water with 1 tsp. of soda; add grated rind and juice of 1 lemon; beat 1 min. Add 1 1/2 c. flour and pinch of salt; beat one min. Bake 40 min.
And the magazine also corrected the quote from Mr. Briggs, “Just put me up a roof where my wife may support me, and I will ask no more.” (Though how it got either quote is open to question.)
As the story of the famous Berwick sponge cake gets retold, Mrs. Briggs emerges more clearly.
The New York Times in 1894 picked up a story from the Portland Transcript with the headline, “How the Berwick Sponge Cake Had Its Greatness Thrust Upon It.”
The newspaper describes the eating of the famous Berwick sponge cake at the restaurant as “an event of consequence inseparable from travel over the Eastern Railroad.”
One day in the 1860s a Mrs. B was mixing some cake dough when someone called her to another room, the newspaper reported. She left the dough on the table. Her daughter, then five or six years old, emptied something into the dough, the name of which the author was not at liberty to mention. (Cream of tartar? Baking soda?) Mrs. B. decided to bake the cake anyway, as the ingredient wouldn’t harm anyone.
“The result was the Berwick sponge cake in all its glory,” wrote the newspaper. All who ate it praised the delectable compound, and it became famous with travelers. They would buy whole loaves and carry them on their journey or take them home.
Mrs. B. retired from the railway dining room business in 1879, having made a comfortable sum, mostly from cake sales. Eventually she got very ill, and summoned her son-in-law to tell him the recipe. He then sold it to a commercial baker.
Finally, Arthur Wellington Brayley gave Mrs. B. her due in his 1909 book, Bakers and Baking in Massachusetts, Including the Flour, Baking Supply and Kindred Interests, from 1620 to 1909.
“Of the many cakes made in Massachusetts, none have a wider reputation and in their day larger sales than the Berwick sponge cake,” wrote Brayley.
He credits Mrs. Mary Ann Pettengill, born in Newburyport, Mass., in 1813. She married for her second husband William Briggs, a clerk in a railway freight office who shortly after their marriage lost a leg. They then opened the restaurant at North Berwick, where hungry passengers bought her sponge cake.
“Such was its excellence that its reputation spread far and wide,” wrote Brayley. In the early 1850s, a Mr. Meyer of Boston got the rights to sell the cake, and sold it all over the world. Then the express train came, and the restaurant began to wane. So Mary Ann Briggs closed the restaurant and moved to Boston, where she died in 1898.
But the famous Berwick sponge cake lived on. The Oak Grove Farm Creamery sold it from a bakery under the ownership of J.W. Alden, located at 2220 Washington Street, Roxbury.
This story updated in 2023.