A history of the Dartmouth Night bonfire
“Lest the Old Traditions Fail” — the famous line from the Dartmouth Alma Mater, “Dear Old Dartmouth” — has been thrown around often in the last few weeks as the future of the Homecoming bonfire tradition lies at stake.
In an email sent to campus by the President’s Intern on Oct. 16, the administration made clear that “if [they] do not implement the town’s changes successfully and resolve their concerns about student behavior, this will be the last bonfire.”
While it seems that the bonfire custom as we know it is in danger of ending, change is nothing new to this tradition.
The first bonfire was a celebration of an 1888 victorious baseball game, and was attended by all four classes. During this time, the baseball program had a “monopoly of attention” over the football program, according to an October 1888 article published by The Dartmouth. The baseball team had extended its season to begin in the middle of the fall term, causing it to overlap with the football season. The Dartmouth reported in that article, “We know the game of baseball fairly well and can hold our own with most colleges in that. But in football we are scarcely acquainted with the rudiments.”
These bonfires continued for baseball game victories until 1895, when College president William Jewett Tucker officially recognized “Dartmouth Night” as an annual ceremony. On September 17, 1895, the first official Dartmouth Night bonfire was lit, and the modern bonfire tradition began to take shape. As the bonfire was ignited, the College faculty and president addressed students and alumni with speeches. When former College president Tucker gave his opening speech, he described the event as intending to “promote class spirit and … initiate freshmen into the community.”
The bonfire tradition continued to develop as William Heneage Legge, the Sixth Earl of Dartmouth, visited the College in the early 1900s. Students marched around the Green with the bonfire at the center, hoping to make a lasting impression on the Earl.
It was not until 1923 after the dedication of Memorial Field that the football program became associated with the bonfire tradition. Former College president Ernest Hopkins and student athletes gave speeches at the stadium, and the class proceeded to the Green. During his speech, Hopkins reiterated that the event was designed to “perpetuate the Dartmouth spirit, and capitalize on the history of the College. Let us set a watch lest the old traditions fail.”
Beginning in the early 1950s, the College scheduled the Dartmouth Night bonfire and the Homecoming football game to occur on the same weekend. Dartmouth Night was then officially dubbed “Homecoming” in 1961.
While recent years have seen new safety and security concerns surrounding the bonfire, Homecoming has had a history of issues. The 1950 Homecoming fire was ignited by a student 24 hours before the event was intended to begin. By the time the fire was put out that night, the structure was merely debris. In response, 200 Dartmouth students rebuilt the hexagonal structure with wooden railroad ties, working until early morning the next day. The rallying of the student body to reconstruct the bonfire moved the College to allow students help build the structure after that year.
While the tradition had been to erect a structure the same number of tiers as the freshman class’s graduating year, the Dartmouth class of 1979 decided to build a 100-tier structure. The resulting bonfire was so hot that it drove students and alumni alike off the Green. The College consequently imposed a new height limit and a redesign of the structure for future years.
In 1988, the College decided to limit the height of the structure to 60 feet and transition to using eco-friendly wood. The creosote-soaked railroad ties were replaced with environmentally friendlier newly cut timber. Yet when the structure was lit on Homecoming night, it did not burn. The Dartmouth reported the next morning that the structure was still standing completely sound.
An opinion article from The Dartmouth said, “The fact that the bonfire was as some have said, ‘the lamest ever’ has nothing to do with the freshman class. We can’t blame the weak fire on the idea that ‘cellos don’t burn’. The ’92s did not make the decision to use green wood.”
The bonfire’s three-tiered geometric structure did not change between 1995 and 2015, according to Douglas Van Citters ’99, the engineering professor who led the team redesigning this year’s bonfire. However, following the 1999 incident at Texas A&M University where 12 students were killed and 27 students were injured by a collapsed bonfire, the College limited the number of students allowed to assist with the construction.
According to Van Citters, the biggest change to the bonfire that occurred between 1995 and 2015, was the “freshmen sweep” before the event.
“The parade happened by residence hall, not by house community,” he said. “It was much longer, since it snaked all around campus and main street. The whole event was much less controlled back then than it is now. It was honestly pretty rowdy.”
Vice president of alumni relations Cheryl Bascomb ’82 said the biggest change she has seen in the last decade has been the increased access to the bonfire for alumni through pictures or livestreams.
“Through technology, alumni who can’t physically get back [to Hanover] can still experience [the Bonfire],” she said.
One of the newest changes over the past few decades has been the student-initiated tradition of freshmen attempting to touch the bonfire. Since the ’90s, the College has seen an increase in the number of students trying to touch the fire and avoid the title of “worst class ever” by the upperclassmen. During the 2016 Homecoming bonfire, the volume of students charging the fire was so great that a portion of the fire was extinguished early.
During last year’s Homecoming, the College erected a fence to prevent students from running toward the fire. In spite of the barrier, there were seven attempts to jump the fence and touch the fire.
This year’s bonfire will see two major changes. The first is the redesigned bonfire structure.
“Hanover’s concern was the fire was falling sideways, which I verified did fall slightly sideways in some years,” Van Citters explained. “The town said that cannot happen again.”
The town was concerned that when the bonfire falls sideways, it can potentially fall on either the Safety and Security officers or the students, according to Van Citters. In response, he and a team of engineers and students redesigned the 2018 bonfire to be slightly wider, a few feet shorter, and have a different center of mass to fall inwards instead of sideways. The structure is made with the same amount of wood as in the last 20 years, Citters said.
The second change is the implementation of a fence at the end of the ring of the bonfire preventing students from running more than one lap.
“Running around leads to situations where there may be mob mentality or the inability to track students trying to run into the fire and touch the fire,” he said.
After running one lap, the freshmen will be funneled in front of Dartmouth Hall to take a class photo and watch the fire burn.
“Every tradition has been maintained with the exception of running around the fire, which was the town’s mandate,” Van Citters said, “There will be alumni and athlete speeches, the pep rally aspect, the true tradition of marching around fire is even maintained. We fought hard for that. We still wanted that to be part of [the Homecoming tradition].”
While many aspects of the Homecoming tradition will be maintained, the Dartmouth administration had made clear that any attempts to touch the fire this year will end the bonfire tradition for future classes.
While Sam Selleck ’22 said he was disheartened by the limitations on running around the fire, he is optimistic that this event will be a unifying event for his class.
“Twenty-two laps around the fire wouldn’t be the defining event,” he said. “Just being able to run around with my class is what makes it for me.”
Bascomb said that the tradition will still be about “great people, a great place and great fun.”
Associate dean for student life Eric Ramsey said he believes the Dartmouth spirit of Homecoming means something different to every person on campus.
“The Dartmouth spirit is really about this wonderful sense of place in the northern woods surrounded by the natural landscape around us,” he said. “It is the continuity of the College through multi generations. There is a deep pride in the various student experiences, student athletes and academic organizations.”
It is clear that the bonfire tradition will continue to grow and change. However, to most, this tradition is not about the bonfire, or the parade, or the speeches. It is about celebrating the Dartmouth spirit with classmates and alumni.
As Allison Lynn ’91 wrote in The Dartmouth in 1988, “the changes which may, as some claim, have created a new Dartmouth, have in no way killed the old one. The administration can make changes, but if the students continue to perceive the school as the family and environment that it is cracked up to be, these changes won’t be allowed to alter Dartmouth’s core.”