Setting a bonfire in celebrationswas a longstanding New England tradition. In Boston, they were a regular feature of Pope Night, and the capture of the Fortress at Louisbourg in 1758 was celebrated with a bonfire and fireworks on top of Fort Hill.
Enormous bonfires, months in the planning, were a hallmark of New England July 4 celebrations during the first half of the 20th century.
“It was a custom observed from time immemorial for the towns-boys to have a bonfire on the Square on the midnight before the Fourth,” wrote Thomas Bailey Aldrich in The Story of a Bad Boy, a fictionalized biography published in 1870 about his boyhood in Portsmouth, N.H.
Shortly after he signed the Declaration of Independence, John Adams predicted bonfires would be part of an annual ‘great anniversary festival.’
It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other.
After the Civil War, Independence Day festivities grew increasingly rowdy. By the turn of the century, Fourth of July celebrations got so dangerous that they killed hundreds of children each year. Small boys set off random bonfires that ignited the neighbors’ houses. And with toy guns, children shot blank cartridges, which pierced the skin and caused tetanus, the leading cause of Independence Day-related death.
The campaign for a Safe and Sane Fourth promoted less dangerous activities – like carefully supervised public bonfires.
Town leaders liked the giant bonfires because they replaced the smaller fires set by juvenile pyromaniacs. In 1914, for example, the Springfield Republican reported firefighters responded to 39 fires on July 4. Ten were started by fireworks and 22 by bonfires.
The public bonfire craze took off in the first half of the 20th century. On July 3, 1911, the Norwalk Hour reported every important Connecticut city declared for a noiseless Fourth of July celebration as part of the Safe and Sane program. New Haven, for example, allowed a dozen great bonfires to be set under police supervision. The "kids" have been collecting materials for the fires for weeks past, the newspaper reported.
A Boston Globe headline in 1929 read, '16 HUGE BONFIRES WELCOME FOURTH Flare Forth at Midnight in Boston and Nearby Communities; Safe and Sane Night Before 200,000 Gather at Columbus Park'. Quincy, Mass., advertised its bonfire in a 1948 edition of The Billboard.
New England towns then began to compete to light the biggest bonfires on the night of July 3.
World Champion Bonfire
Salem, Mass., usually built the biggest bonfire.
Salem, in fact, was the world champion. At midnight on Gallows Hill, burning rags set the huge wooden pyramid aflame along with the announcement, “the night has turned into the morning of a new year of liberty.” Tens of thousands of people stood and watched.
Volunteers from the Gallows Hill Bonfire Association spent weeks bringing materials to the site. They then stacked barrels on top of casks on top of hogsheads in as many as 40 tiers. A minister writing in 1908 estimated the tower to be 135 feet high.
In 1930, a news crew came to film Salem’s amazing bonfire. (To see newsreel footage of the Gallows Hill bonfire, click here.) Life Magazine ran a feature on it in 1949. (See pictures from the article here.)
The bonfire craze began to taper off in the 1960s for several reasons. Better, cheaper fireworks became more available and corrugated cardboard replaced wooden casks, barrels and hogsheads.