Throughout storied history, bonfire a College staple

by Mark Henle | 10/29/04 5:00am

In 1888, a bunch of boozed-up baseball players, elated at their recent victory over Manchester College, indulged their collective destructive side and set a roaring blaze in the center of the Hanover Green. Through that inauspicious beginning, their drunken revelry has spawned one of Dartmouth's most memorable and lasting annual events.

The Class of 2008 will continue this tradition, which predates both Dartmouth Night and formalized Homecoming, when they run around tonight's bonfire.

The first bonfire was significantly less organized than the bonfires of today. Students collected whatever wood they could find and burned it in the middle of the Green. The Dartmouth reported that the occasion "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 College held its first organized bonfire in 1893 to celebrate a Dartmouth football victory over Amherst College.

In its long history, the bonfire has attracted many to the College for Dartmouth Night. Winston Churchill and Lord Dartmouth attended the event in 1904, which coincided with the first year that pajama-clad students sprinted around the bonfire.

In 1946, the Dartmouth freshmen began building the bonfire, which at that time was still built with whatever flammable material students could get their hands on. In the 1950s, an alumnus who owned a railroad company in Maine changed that, as he offered railroad ties for the occasion, starting yet another tradition.

During the 1950s, bonfires became so popular that they were built at every football game rally when wood was plentiful.

In 1971, a local farmer contributed his barn to be used as fuel for that year's fire. When students arrived at what they believed was the correct barn, they discovered a stockpile of wood inside and so decided they had no need to burn the barn. Two days later, a different farmer stormed into Dartmouth with the Hanover Police, claiming that his wood had been stolen.

The bonfire's history has also been marked by mischief, strange incidents and even violence.

In 1968, three members of the Dartmouth Outing Club delayed the lighting of the bonfire by 20 minutes when they replaced the kerosene that was to be used to light the fire with water. In 1980, the bonfire was prematurely lit and burned for two days. And in 1983, following a bomb scare, the Class of 1987 was forced to disassemble their bonfire piece-by-piece so that officials could search for dynamite.

In 1991, a group of students who vehemently disagreed with the College's new policy of banning open alcohol sources handcuffed themselves to the bonfire, shouting, "We want kegs! We want kegs!"

Dartmouth students have generally been able to celebrate the bonfire despite the curveballs thrown their way. However, extenuating circumstances surrounding certain periods have caused students to quiet their boisterous celebration or abandon it altogether.

Concern for American troops during the two world wars led to scaled-down ceremonies. In 1954, Hurricane Hazel forced the bonfire to be cancelled, and again, in 1963, the bonfire was cancelled by order of the Hanover Fire Department because of a prolonged dry spell.

Today's bonfire is undoubtedly different from past celebrations in the event's 117-year history: There are no longer any hundred-tiered bonfires because of safety restrictions (the last one was built in 1979). The bonfire is now built over several days, rather than weeks. Construction ends at dusk, and freshmen no longer guard their bonfire from upperclassmen while it is being built, as was the tradition in years past.

In contrast to the makeshift structures of yesteryear, the bonfire is now built by a design supplied by the Thayer School of Engineering, which ensures that it collapses inward as it burns, and students building the bonfire are closely supervised to ensure that no one is injured during the construction process.