Bonfire burns bright for more than century of change

by Will Meland | 10/27/00 5:00am

After more than a century of changing times, the Class of 2004 can look forward to a grand bonfire that hearkens back to such famous figures as Winston Churchill, Lord Dartmouth and a few daring students who began what has become a celebrated symbol of the so-called Dartmouth experience.

With a few exceptions, the tradition has remained a mainstay of student and local experience for the past 112 years.

Records for early bonfires begin in 1888, when students celebrated the then Indians' 3-2 baseball victory over Manchester. Coverage of the event in The Dartmouth struck a somber tone, with the paper reporting that "It disturbed the slumbers of a peaceful town, destroyed some property, made the boys feel that they were men, and, in fact, did no one any good."

The first relatively organized bonfire on the Green was built in 1893 to celebrate the football team's 34-0 humiliation over Amherst. This made The Dartmouth change its tone, writing: "It was easily the largest and at the same time the first strictly honest bonfire the College has ever seen. It was an honest victory and appropriately celebrated with an honest bonfire."

The tradition coalesced into its current form in the fall of 1946, when the first bonfire that was built by the freshman class for Dartmouth Night, later renamed Homecoming in the 1980s.

College President William Jewett Tucker, who instituted Dartmouth Night, believed that the building of the bonfire would "promote class spirit and initiate freshmen into the community."

Besides Dartmouth Night itself, the 1950s and 60s saw multiple bonfires per year, as numerous sports victories were celebrated with brightly burning mounds of wood and debris.

"When I was a freshman, we built a bonfire for every home football game," Paul Killebrew '67 said in a previous interview. "It was a big deal. We'd go 100 miles to find wood. Bringing it in was a lot of work, but we were freshmen, and that's what we were told every class had always done. So we did it."

The change from "Dartmouth Night" to "Homecoming" seems to have been fitful " as records of "Homecoming '81" and "Dartmouth Night '83," referring to the same annual event, can attest.

At the heart of the confusion was then Vice President of the College Addison Winship, who in 1983 said that Homecoming "is associated with state universities, not private colleges," and that "Someone who didn't know what he was talking about must have started calling Dartmouth Night 'Homecoming.'"

Later documents reveal that "Dartmouth Night" refers to the night of the bonfire burning, while "Homecoming" is a more general term referring to the entire weekend.

Bonfire antics of a less-wholesome nature have surfaced in recent years. In 1982, the bonfire was not lit because of an anonymous call to the Dean's Office claiming that dynamite had been placed among the wooden boards.

After a delay, a cherry picker was brought in to disassemble the boards one by one. No dynamite was found, and although the structure was rebuilt, it was not ignited.

More mischief occurred in 1991, as protesters against a new College alcohol policy handcuffed themselves to the structure shouting "We want kegs" in unison.

The destructive mood came to a head in 1992, when about 600 upperclassmen, inebriated and wielding baseball bats and hockey sticks, threatened to storm the bonfire.

The structure

Misfortunes aside: inquiring Darmouthphiles may want to know, "exactly what have we been burning all these years?"

Compared to the scientifically-designed geometrical wonder that is the current bonfire, earlier versions were known to contain ruined car parts and the occasional charred piece of furniture.

Wooden railroad tiers, supplied by the Central Railroad Company, materialized in the 1950s because the president of the company was a Dartmouth alum.

When the supply of railroad ties went dry in 1958, a succession of local farmers donated their personal stashes of combustibles.

In the 1970s, students chopped whole trees into usable pieces. One year, an entire church steeple donated to the College crowned a special bonfire.

Currently, bonfires are constructed with specially ordered, eight-foot sections of six-by-six-inch timber. The wood is dried all summer to achieve a vigorous, bright fire.

Carefully designed by the Thayer School of Engineering, the current structure employs 62 tiers of wood arranged in a complex star pattern, engineered to collapse inward on itself for safety.

In previous years, bonfires had as many tiers as the year designation of the freshman class. In 1986, the design was made a constant 62 tiers to enhance safety.

Last November's Texas A&M bonfire collapse, in which 12 people were killed and 27 others injured, put a national spotlight on the importance of sound bonfire construction and design.

In response, Dartmouth's plans have been examined by Steve Erickson, assistant director of Facilities Operation and Management, who oversees the construction of the bonfire. He said small changes to Dartmouth's blueprints are still being considered.

A complicated history

While many enjoy the annual sight of the blazing bonfire, there has been some periodic soul-searching as to the usefulness and logic behind the tradition. A heavily publicized 1970 report by the eco-forerunner Center for Human Survival slammed the fire as "wasteful," noting that it caused unnecessary pollution and deprived needy families of firewood.

The group tormented Dartmouth with threats of a court order blocking the fire, but later reneged.

Many of the past pollution concerns stemmed from the burning of wood containing chemicals, such as the petroleum-soaked railroad ties from the 1950s. Wood supplies currently used are not chemically treated.

Still, students in the early 1990s discussed more ecologically friendly alternatives to the large bonfire, one voicing acceptance for a "humble fire made out of scrap wood."

The Class of 1994 planted 200 trees in the College Grant's "Freshman Grove" to respond to environmental concerns of the day.

At times, student apathy towards the tradition has surfaced, most notably during the Vietnam War period. For five years in the late 1960s, bonfires were not constructed due to "lack of student interest" in lifting the gloom of the war era, according to a previous report in The Dartmouth.

However, student enthusiasm for the tradition now seems healthier than ever, judging by new ideas put forward by a committee of '04s responsible for the bonfire. Green flames, produced by a fertilizer additive, were to be in store for this year's bonfire, said Kyle Smith '04, a member of the committee.

The idea was rejected by College officials due to concerns about hazardous material exposure from the chemical additive, Director of Facilities Management Stephen Erickson said.

"It would have been neat to see, though," he added.