What's the Future of the Dartmouth Bonfire?

Dartmouth's first bonfires were burning piles of junk. (Photo: Rauner Library)

Hanover officials will no longer issue an outdoor-activities permit for Dartmouth's annual homecoming bonfire, citing concerns that the three-story-tall structure could collapse and seriously injure those attending Dartmouth Night, which each fall brings thousands of people to the Green on homecoming weekend.

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While the current bonfire design has for many years been built according to strict safety standards and oversight, town officials suggest Dartmouth could build a bonfire that is smaller than the traditional structure, which stands about 35 feet tall. A 15-foot-tall bonfire would not need a town permit, they say. Town officials also informed the College that the state Department of Environmental Services has said that the use of more than 30 gallons of diesel fuel typically used to start the bonfire is illegal and must cease.

As a result, Dartmouth has appointed a working group charged with coming up with safer alternatives to the current size and shape of the bonfire.

This isn't the first time the fire has been downsized. During the last half of the 20th century, the fire had the same number of railroad-tie tiers as the freshman class numbers. Those towers dwarfed the current 3-story inferno.   The fire also inspired a secondary tradition. Freshmen ran the same number of laps around the fire as their class numerals. In 2016 Regina Yan, class of 2019, made the run using crutches due to a knee injury. It took her 2.5 hours.

The high-rise railroad-tie tier practice ended at Dartmouth after a bonfire collapsed at Texas A&M killing 12 students. (By then the Dartmouth fire was nearing 100-tiers.) The Texas tragedy led to the introduction at Dartmouth of the smaller, but now banned three-story structure.

Dartmouth's bonfire was first lit in 1888 in celebration of a baseball victory according to the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. Over the years it has been canceled for a host of reasons including a hurricane in 1954, a drought in 1963 and a bomb scare in 1982. In 1988 Dartmouth replaced creosote soaked-railroad ties with environmentally friendlier newly cut timber. The wood was green and the fire fizzled. 

This week's action by Hanover looks like the multistory fire will be extinguished for good. 

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