A Closer Look at the Homecoming Bonfire

Image Courtesy of Dartmouth

Image Courtesy of Dartmouth

For generations, the Homecoming Bonfire has been a staple of the Dartmouth experience. The blaze towering over the Green is a familiar sight to members of the Dartmouth community new and old. Classes of years past come from around the globe to celebrate the college on the hill and welcome yet another class into the ever-growing family. However, the bonfire had a deeper meaning than simply a welcoming ceremony. It was a fleeting moment every year when members of the Dartmouth family from every creed, class, color and background could all gather to celebrate something they all had in common, Dartmouth.  But as many of the traditions that have been central to the Dartmouth experience come under fire, the bonfire seems to be no exception. In recent years, restrictions have changed the event to the point where it is largely unrecognizable compared to years past. Each of these new regulations has been made I the name of “safety,” but at some point, one must wonder if this has become merely an excuse, conscious or otherwise, to slowly work towards extinguishing the flames forever. The building controversy around the bonfire seems, in many ways to be a string of miscommunications and unintended consequences.  Regardless, the Homecoming bonfire is a centerpiece of any wide-eyed freshman’s Dartmouth experience and is a vital part of the community that must not be diminished.

The Bonfire used to be almost entirely constructed by students, creating a competition between classes as to who could build the largest, most impressive fire. This finally ended in the early ‘90s when there was a rule change limiting the size of the bonfire, thus immortalizing (in their own mind at least) the class of ’79, who built a structure with a record-setting one hundred stories of railroad ties. But, as limits and regulations began to ramp up, students became more separated from the process. No longer are students laying the blueprints for the blaze, but rather invited to “help out” as they perform only grunt work for the team of engineers and construction workers hired for the project. Many of these concessions have been made in the name of safety, especially after 1999, when a bonfire being built at Texas A&M collapsed, killing twelve people and injuring 27 others. A tragedy like the one at A&M naturally brings much attention to safety regulations. However, with a team of some of the brightest engineers designing the blaze to collapse in on itself, wouldn’t one assume the event has become far more safe?

In the 80s, freshmen began circling the fire, turning the event into a track meet of sorts. This fun tradition provided a new responsibility for the incoming class as students circled the blaze as many times the same number of times as their class year (or at least as many as a select few drunken students could count to). However, with the task of building the fire shifting from only students to almost exclusively paid engineers and laborer, students came to adopt a tradition which involved a much more daring feat, touching the fire. Any class who failed to convince a brave soul to slap a log extending out of the crackling blaze was dubbed the “worst class ever.” Though this daring dash required athletic ability and a certain level of agility to juke officers from both Safety and Security and the Hanover Police, the few who were caught walked away with merely a demerit, at worst probation from judicial affairs. No one seems to know exactly when touching the Bonfire started, but it grew as a tradition until the Class of 2020 managed to have over fifty people touch the structure, causing the event to be ended early with the extinguishing of the flames.

“I don’t remember trying to touch the fire in ‘88, but one of my friends tried to light a cigarette on it” wrote a member of the Class of ’92 wrote to Dartblog.com. “The attempt, which I think was successful, melted the sleeve of his bright yellow Patagonia jacket. He wore that jacket all four years. The Class Historians even made a joke about him at Class Day in ‘92.”

For the Class of 2021, many changes to the “safety” protocols were made last fall. Surrounding the blaze was a ten-foot-high fence and a minefield of officers in green or black jackets. The incoming freshmen were issued a seemingly typical warning from the UGAs citing the possibilities of burns, injury, and “discipline.” While this was quickly disregarded by many young freshmen looking to make a name for themselves, there was a key point that the administration forgot to convey: the definition of discipline. Following the events of Dartmouth Night, very similar cases met with varying results. Some students received the harsher end of the old discipline scale, probation, while others found themselves receiving unprecedented sentences of up to three term suspensions. Though it’s important to not jump to conclusions in situations such as this, it’s hard to not to feel as though judicial affairs made an example of certain students. Students touching a thirty-foot blaze while running from police are definitely a safety risk. However, if the College really wanted to end “touching the fire,” one would think think they would at least be transparent about the consequences.   Using a career-threatening suspension as a deterrent rather than a retroactive punishment would have gone further towards accomplishing their goal.

“Touching the fire” is not the only endangered Homecoming tradition.  The fall of 2018 will be pivotal to the future of the bonfire itself. In June, officials from the town of Hanover notified the college that they would no longer issue a permit for the Homecoming Bonfire, citing safety concerns surrounding the event. Though the notice cites overall concern of the pyre collapsing and causing injury, one might assume that instances of students in between the structure and the 10-foot chain link fence obstructing their escape had a role in invoking this decision. Moreover, it is important to note that the largest structure that could be built without a permit required from the town is a mere 15-foot fire.  In comparison, today’s bonfire stands 35 feet tall.

The fact that the short-lived tradition of touching the fire is threatening to diminish or even destroy something that has been part of the Dartmouth community for over a century is an absolute shame. As a whole, the student body needs to recognize that the school and the town have an immense legal liability surrounding this storied event.  When the students refuse to cooperate in keeping this potentially hazardous occasion safe by simply not touching the equivalent of a four-story burning building, the administration and the town understandably must take steps to ensuring they are not sued by an injured student. Fire touching has effectively become a detriment to the entire Dartmouth Community and as a result should die immediately.

As part of a statement from the College’s news page about Hanover’s notice, Susan J. Boutwell writes, “Pitting police officers against students who try to touch the bonfire—an unsafe act that some students have attempted in recent years—puts law enforcement and the public in unnecessary danger during an event whose purpose is community-building.”

Boutwell is completely right here.  The old traditions are an important part of Dartmouth’s fabric that has been sewn through generations of students.  But foolish acts of “bravery” to touch the pyre is a recent development from the last 20 or so years, and they create risks that Dartmouth, law enforcement, and the town cannot continue to undertake. With the death penalty on the table for the bonfire, it is becoming increasingly critical for students to realize that fire touching is simply not worth it.

Regardless, the town of Hanover’s grievances, as mentioned in its notice, ought to be taken at face value rather than speculated upon. The town has made it clear that they do not want to issue another warrant because of the safety concerns surrounding the bonfire, but it is difficult to imagine how the event could be made any safer without the cooperation of students. It is already a pyre guarded by several collapse zones and a police presence from Hanover Police and Safety and Security that rivals the DMZ. The collapse zone is sufficiently wide enough that if it were to fall directly on its side, it would still be well contained. Furthermore, a team of engineers is tasked with designing a fire that collapses on itself and will be of little danger to any spectators. The only people who could be in danger are students attempting to touch the fire, but with the massive punishments handed down for the Class of ’21, that tradition may be moribund. If the College were serious about making the event safer in the eyes of the town without fundamentally changing its nature, they would be up front with the Class of 2022 and threaten an automatic two or three term suspension for those who attempt to touch the fire. They could do this by citing the harsh punishments that were sprung upon select ’21 fire-touchers. Dartmouth students have had a lack of respect for authority over years as the authority of the college was backed by a precedent of demerits, at the very worst a suspension. With a clear standard of discipline set for the future classes, fire-touching will quickly die and eliminate the most dangerous part of the bonfire.

With such a central tradition to the Dartmouth experience at a crossroads, it is high time for the administration and the students to both reflect upon what has gone wrong in years past. If students were more involved in building the structure, maybe there would be less of a fascination with touching it. There are several different avenues that can be pursued to try and make the students more involved in the event, something that seems increasingly important when encouraging students to not engage in behavior such as fire building. Understandably it is still important for the fire construction to be supervised by engineers and people who will ensure it won’t collapse out towards spectators, but involving students more in the process of planning, organizing, and constructing the fire may be a worthwhile change. Whatever the college may pursue in the future, hopefully the bonfire will be saved for the foreseeable future. Without creating a clear punishment for students who put all parties involved at risk, as well as a focus on alternative student involvement with the event, this custom may sadly be on its last legs.