First held on September 17, 1895, Dartmouth Night was introduced by President William Jewett Tucker to give the College a day to invite alumni back to their alma mater and to unequivocally celebrate their achievements. But there wasn’t always a bonfire, and the first years of Dartmouth Night were celebrated indoors in the Old Chapel in Dartmouth Hall. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that one of many athletics-related bonfires coincided with Dartmouth Night that the homecoming bonfire tradition began.
Today, the bonfire is the highlight of homecoming weekend, bringing together alumni, their families, students of all years, and members of the larger Upper Valley community in community and celebration. Preparations begin early with a student-led bonfire committee comprised of first year students, who see the event as a marker of class unity and membership in the broader Dartmouth community.
This year, preparations took a more intentional approach in response to areas of concern for the town of Hanover: the bonfire collapse and student behavior around the fire. Since July, a working group committee, appointed by Interim Provost David Kotz '86, has been examining measures that would ensure this tradition would neither be compromised nor compromise the safety of the thousands of people who attend every fall.
Chaired by Associate Professor of Engineering Douglas Van Citters ’99, Thayer ’03, ’06, the committee worked to make a recommendation to President Phil Hanlon ’77 and his senior leadership group who then finalized a plan with the town. Speaking of the process, Van Citters said “We looked at everything, and interviewed all stakeholders: students, staff, athletes, alumni, and community members because we realize everyone who attends takes something different from the tradition.”
Early in the process, it was reported that some safety fears would be allayed if the 33ft structure was reduced to 15ft because the collapsing structure would pose less risk to bystanders and first responders. At 15ft the fire would lose some of the aspects of spectacle so important to the night, arguably diminishing the broader experience, and so Van Citters made it part of his mission to analyze the structure and find the right balance of height and safety.
Through a process of photo analysis, examining the structure and fall progressions of past bonfires and replicating them at 1/12th scale, Van Citters who has attended every bonfire since his freshman year, spent countless hours analyzing failures to come up with this year’s structure, a mere 5ft shorter than previous years. The resulting structure is more likely to collapse inward, even on windy nights. This, together with changes requested by the town and programmatically implemented by the committee, sets the stage for many more years of celebration.
“We are very grateful the town agreed to work with us on this,” Van Citters said. “Everyone I talked to about the reduced height has seen it as a completely rational response to safety concerns when the alternative may have been no bonfire at all,” he added.
For full details on all homecoming events, visit Dartmouth Homecoming. See for yourself the changes made to the bonfire structure as it gets built on the Green over the next few days!