This article is featured in the 2022 Homecoming special issue.
According to past reporting by The Dartmouth, the first Dartmouth bonfire took place in 1888 — lit after the College chose to celebrate a “victorious baseball game.” For the next seven years, students continued to mark baseball wins with celebratory bonfires, until then-College President William Jewett Tucker officially established “Dartmouth Night” in 1895 — an annual bonfire first held on Sept. 17, 1895.
While the bonfire initially centered on baseball, the tradition shifted to celebrate the football program in 1923, after the completion of Memorial Field, The Dartmouth reported. By the 1950s, the College began to schedule the “Dartmouth Night” bonfire and Homecoming football game for the same weekend, and in 1961, “Dartmouth Night” was officially renamed the Homecoming bonfire. Over the course of the College’s history, the tradition has morphed from a celebration of sports to one focused on commemorating the first-year class.
The College has dealt with both safety and security issues since the tradition’s start, according to past reporting by The Dartmouth. Although the bonfire initially equated the number of tiers to the new first-year class size, the Class of 1979 decided to construct the bonfire to be 100 tiers. But the bonfire got too hot, leading the College to begin a process of redesign and impose a height limit. In 1988, the College restricted the height of the bonfire to 60 feet, while also mandating the use of eco-friendly wood.
Moreover, the number of students permitted to assist in the construction of the bonfire was reduced after a 1999 incident at Texas A&M University, which left 12 students dead and 27 injured after a bonfire collapsed, according to past reporting by The Dartmouth. Between 1995 and 2015, the “bonfire’s three-tiered geometric structure did not change,” the article reported.
According to engineering professor Douglas Van Citters ’99, two major changes to the bonfire took place in 2018: a redesign of its structure — focused on increasing the volume of wood — led by Van Citters and the installation of a fence around the ring of the fire.
Van Citters said that the redesign was sparked by the town’s refusal to grant the College an outdoor activities permit, citing concerns with the structure of the bonfire. He added that the main issue with the structure was safety — while the pre-2018 structure was not too tall, it was unstable and fell in unpredictable ways.
According to Hanover fire chief Martin McMillan, about four or five years ago, a “highly intoxicated person stumbled out to the fire to touch it,” falling down while the bonfire was at a stage where it began to collapse. The firefighters on site then sprayed water on the fire to put it out.
“People were upset, but people were gonna get hurt,” McMillan said. “That triggered a whole series of ‘We’ve had enough’ perspectives from the town. And from my perspective as the fire chief [was], I’m not gonna give you a permit anymore . . . because this is an accident waiting to happen.”
In a Dartblog article, McMillan added that an increased number of students attempting to touch the fire in 2016 contributed to his concerns with the tradition.
“There were two students in 2014, seven in 2015 with two [Safety and Security] officers injured, approximately 75 students in 2016 and fewer than ten students in 2017,” McMillan wrote. “The significant increase in students entering the bonfire’s collapse zone during the 2016 bonfire prompted some very serious discussions between the town and college regarding the overall safety of the bonfire.”
Ultimately, the town rejected the College’s outdoor permit and urged them to prevent students from entering the “collapse zone,” McMillan wrote.
Van Citters said he convened a 12-member committee in the summer of 2018 to discuss a redesign, aiming to “make a homecoming event that worked for everybody.” According to Van Citters, Provost David Kotz ’86 and the office of the President chose representatives from the offices of alumni relations, student affairs, special events and Safety and Security, as well as two students, two alumni and two faculty members.
Physics and astronomy department chair Ryan Hickox said he was involved in the bonfire redesign committee mostly because of his role as a house professor.
“The house communities have had a role to play in terms of the way that the whole bonfire ceremony works because the first-year students are each picked up at their house community ” in a process known as the “sweep,” he said.
Van Citters, along with his team of students and engineers, said the group gave the bonfire a higher volume of wood than the previous structure — the wider portion of the fire is now taller than the previous design, while the narrower portions are shorter. He added that the increased volume leads the fire to collapse inward on itself.
“For three years in a row, it’s done exactly what we had modeled — where it’s fallen in on itself in a predictable period of time,” Van Citters said. “What it does is it allows all the participants to watch it and interact with it in a way that’s quite a bit more safe.”
The structural change to the bonfire convinced the town to reconsider and ultimately issue the College’s permit, while also fostering “a really strong partnership with the town and its first responders [the chief of police, fire chief and town manager] that made it so that we could get a permit going forward,” Van Citters said.
Director of student involvement David Pack wrote in an emailed statement to The Dartmouth that the changes have been received positively by the town.
The second major change to the bonfire was the installation “of a fence at the end of the ring of the bonfire preventing students from” doing more than one lap, Hickox said. Moreover, the town mandated that students cannot run around the bonfire, a former aspect of the tradition.
“What ended up happening was that we would get lots of students running around it for a long time, which provided much more possibility of things getting out of hand and people trying to get close to the fire,” Hickox said.
Hickox added that prior to the 2018 changes, the bonfire introduced a “somewhat coercive environment” where “a lot of students found it a little bit hostile.”
“There were a wide variety of reactions to what the bonfire was like, but while students were running around, there was a tradition that there would be people yelling insults at them for quite a long time,” he said. “It was overall something that was quite intimidating and certainly not as welcoming as one would like it to be.”
Other smaller changes to the bonfire event took place in 2018, such as the timing of the first-year classes lap around the fire and the location of Homecoming activities.
According to Hickox, students used to stand in a circle “for a long time” while waiting for the bonfire to be fully lit. During this waiting period, people would run to touch the fire when it was not yet completely engulfed. As a result, Hickox said the timing was altered so that the first sweep of students arrived when the fire was already fully lit.
“All those [2018 changes] together served to both make the bonfire significantly safer in terms of the danger of falling on people and the opportunity for people to do dangerous things around it in terms of timing,” Hickox said. “And I think it also made it a much more controlled and welcoming environment.”
This year’s bonfire will follow the same design that was developed in 2018, according to Van Citters.
“We don’t see any need to change it,” he said. “It behaved exactly the way it was designed for three full burns.”
Van Citters added that there is a camera attached to the bonfire, filming in slow motion to ensure the committee understands how the fire behaves. If anything unexpected happens, Van Citters said the group is ready to change the design.