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LFN Look Back: Bonfires and "P-Rades" Lead Up To The Game

For a very long period during the Rivalry, parades and bonfires have played a large part of the festivities, though their timing and purpose have changed over time.

And just like “smokers”, parades bonfires started out as athletic celebrations separate from the Rivalry, but ultimately became intertwined with the traditions of the game.

The tradition of the parade and bonfire dates from the times when cars were still rare, and most of the transportation into South Bethlehem came by the Lehigh Valley Railroad, whose station was only a few blocks from campus.

Bonfires celebrating athletic victories were not unknown in the late 1890s at both Lehigh and Lafayette, as well as parades for successful athletic teams.  They may have been inspired by Harvard, Yale and Princeton, who were starting to celebrate their biggest victories over each others with large bonfires.


In 1896, after Lafayette’s shocking 6-4 win over a football Goliath of the times, Penn, overjoyed Lafayette fans paraded from Franklin field to downtown, cheering their team.  When the train returned to Easton from Philadelphia, a throng of Lafayette supporters mobbed them at the station and escorted them back up to campus.

Additionally, a bonfire was a part of the days-long celebrations that followed, as well as fireworks.as Lafayette’s marching band led the procession into downtown Easton.

1910s students gather wood for a bonfire
In 1898, Lehigh’s first documented bonfire came after the baseball team had a successful tour down in the south, with a similar procession.

“The [entourage], and the victorious team, moved in its appointed route,” The Brown and White reported.  “The fireworks, music and yelling made the body enthusiastic and everything moved along smoothly, until a stray spark ignited the pile of fireworks which were stored in the bottom of the coach.  In an instant, the old four-horse shay, which had witnessed so many games, was a mass of flames, and its occupants were seen tumbling pell-mell over the sides.”

After their parade through Bethlehem, they ended their procession on campus, where “a mammoth bonfire was waiting”, they said.

Soon enough, bonfires would become intertwined with the big wins in the Rivalry - but only after one of the teams was victorious.

“Fireworks and colored lights were set off at point all along the line of march,” The Brown and White reported after a Lehigh win in 1902.  “while many private residences were lighted from cellar to garret.  The cheering for Lehigh, for the whole team, and for [head coach] Dr. [S.B.] Newton, started at eight o'clock and did not stop except for speeches until half-past ten.”

The ultimate destination for those early parades was the private residence of Lehigh's president, Dr. Henry Drown, which was in South Bethlehem across the New Street bridge.

Dr. Henry Drown, Lehigh President, 1895-1904
“The president congratulated the team and recalled a similar procession, four years ago after the last victory over Lafayette.  He said that the victory showed that Lehigh could get there on the second, third, or fourth ‘re’ if they couldn’t on the first.”

The beloved Dr. Drown would die tragically the week before the Rivalry game of 1904, which caused the first of only two postponements of the game during the course of the entire series.  It is fair to say that without Dr. Drown at the helm, Lehigh may not have been able to steer its way through the late 1890s, as his actions in changing Lehigh's funding from the Lehigh Valley Railroad to a variety of different sources, notably the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania itself, saved the school from bankruptcy.

It is not clear whether the "P-Rades" started as a testimony to Dr. Drown, but what is clear is that they gained in popularity, especially around Rivalry time, and started off having death as a motif.

It isn't clear how pajamas got involved with the "P-Rade" or the bonfires, though the 24-hour watch to make sure that Lafayette students or local kids didn't set the blaze off early may have been a factor.

By the 1910s, you see the first references of the celebratory parade as “P-Rade” as the location of the bonfire was relocated up to Point Lookout on South Mountain.

The bonfire took on more of the feel of a funeral pyre, as a Lafayette “dummy”, affectionaltely known as “Old Man Lafayette”, was to be attached to the top to burn with all the flammable material.   Freshmen would gather the wood.

The dummy was carried around the town on the P-Rade via a hearse, with the freshman marching through the streets of Bethlehem in their pajamas.

It was at this time, too, that the Marching 97, Lehigh’s marching Band, started to been seen as a critical part of the campus in regards to spirit for the football games.

1948 halftime appearance of Marching 97
“It is most essential during the foot-ball season for the games, smokers and ‘P-rades’ that the college band be reorganized,” The Brown and White editorialized in 1911.  “Nearby institutions have bands of which they can rightly feel proud, and why should we have one that will at least equal theirs, if not better it?  A ‘P-rade” without a band is almost a farce, as it lacks interest, spirit, and enthusiastic qualities which are practically a positive necessity.”

“Everyone knows what it means to hear a band at a foot-ball game,” the editorial continued.  “Its music coming from the field gives one a certain feeling of satisfaction and contentment, one of great inspiration which cannot be explained, a feeling which is an incentive to greater enthusiasm.”

By the end of the 1910s, the “P-Rades” changed to be a part of the Friday night festivities along with the now-customary smoker.  Rather then parade to the President's house to hear a speech or to escort a successful team back to campus, the parade instead would go to the Moravian women’s school - where they would serenade the girls with Lehigh songs, and the girls would serenade them back.

Over the New Street Bridge, which now was renamed the Penny Bridge for its 1 cent toll, freshman would sing a new song, “We Pay No Tolls Tonight,” as they marched across the bridge.  Bethlehem’s finest frequently escorted the kids across.

1951's "P-Rade", with frosh in pajamas on a tree
Though parades would wane in popularity at Lafayette, the presence of the young ladies at Moravian would ensure that the "P-Rades" would continue for decades.

Along with the "P-Rades," in the 1920s, with Lehigh in the midst of a massive losing streak to Lafayette, bonfires became a part of the pre-game festivities rather than a part of a post-game victory celebration.

With students now starting to have cars, the possibility of Lafayette students sneaking over to light the bonfire early became more of a probability than a possibility.

After 1945 this tradition of having the bonfire in the pre-ceremony was re-instituted, in an attempt to return to “pre-war student enthusiasm”, according to The Brown and White.

“The frosh are going to hold a big pre-war bonfire on Upper Field Friday night after the annual pep rally,” they said.  “According to old Brown and White files, the flames have on several occasions reached a height of 75 to 100 feet.  The frosh wanted to push those flames up their too.  Why?  Because if they went high enough, Cyanide [Lehigh’s student organization] would cancel all frosh regulations - no more dinks!”

The size of the bonfire was attempted to be beaten every year, and became a big part of the Rivalry festivities for years afterwards - as was the effort to guard it, with fraternities having their pledges holding all-night watches on the woodpile.

Bonfires have been held off and on the Lehigh and Lafayette campuses since this time, the last one at Lehigh happening in 2007 with then-Lehigh president Alice Gast presiding.

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