Eastport Fire Department Celebrates A Century Of Service

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Lawrence Goldstein scrawled in blue ink what he could remember of his earliest years in the Eastport Fire Department.Namely, how he lied about his age, pretending to be 18 (Mr. Goldstein was only 16 at the time) so the department leaders would let him join—until 2nd Assistant Foreman James Bell Sr. grabbed him by the collar and kicked him out.

He also recalled the days when the volunteer firefighters would stand at the side of the road with their horse-drawn fire truck—the first the department owned—waiting for a car to pass. The men would hop in back of the car and grab hold of the truck’s wooden hitch, while one directed the driver to the fire. Few drivers, if any, turned down their request for a tow, Mr. Goldstein wrote.

Mr. Goldstein, an Eastport resident who died in 1993 at age 96, served the department for 78 years, alongside generations of his family members who, aside for a few exceptions, have held the position of treasurer since the department’s inception.

And his story is just one of many that lace together the century-old history of the Eastport Fire Department, which formed in 1913 as the Eastport Chemical Engine Company No. 1.

“There aren’t too many things that have survived that long,” said current Chief Ryan King, who joined the department in 1995. “Our membership is thriving.”

The department, which now boasts around 115 volunteers and features 13 trucks and emergency vehicles, has invited neighboring departments, community groups and local officials to celebrate its centennial anniversary by marching in a parade on Saturday, September 21, beginning at the corner of North Bay Avenue and Montauk Highway in Eastport at 4 p.m. and finishing at the firehouse, off Union Avenue. Members expect about 1,000 people to participate. Afterward, attendees are invited to a barbecue at the firehouse, where the department will provide food and beverages, and 100th anniversary mementos will be available for purchase.

“It means a lot to everyone,” Chief King said. “We’ve been talking about it for so long, now that it’s really close, I think everybody is really excited about it.”

Eastport Fire District Commissioner Tom Collins explained that department members have been planning the celebration for the past five years. To commemorate the event, they have compiled a journal that documents the department’s history, along with its past members and officers. They pulled details as best they could from the department’s early records, which consist of not much more than pen on paper.

“We want it to be perfect, or as perfect as it can be,” he said.

Shortly after the department’s inception, the roughly 30 charter members raised enough money to purchase their first truck for $1,020. When they smelled smoke, the first volunteers to arrive at the firehouse that then sat off Main Street, off a street called Clamshell Road, used a sledgehammer to strike a large rim from a locomotive that was hung about 20 feet in the air and could be heard throughout the hamlet. The firefighters built a staircase to reach the metal ring, which was donated by the Long Island Rail Road and utilized as the department’s alarm until the invention of the electric alarm some years later.

The first electric alarm was located near the old ice cream parlor, which is now the Eastport Luncheonette, and that is where the late Forrest Raynor, a former firefighter, had the duty of blowing it each day at noon.

In an ironic twist of fate, the department’s first firehouse burned to the ground on March 12, 1925, though firefighters were able to save their first chemical engine. Fire district commissioners, who then had the ability to collect taxes, purchased a plot of land on Main Street, where they constructed a new firehouse. The department eventually outgrew that building and built a new firehouse on Union Avenue in 1969.

Some of the department’s oldest members—Edward Vicik, 96, Raymond “Yump” Robinson, 92, Chester “Moose” Massey, 82, and Carl Woronka, 83—recalled last week how different firefighting was in the early days, when they would fight blazes wearing little more than the clothes on their back and a rubber jacket.

Many fires started on the duck farms that were abundant in the area at the time, they said. Without fire hydrants or tanker trucks, firefighters would drop the business end of their hoses by the fire and drive the pumper truck straight into the man-made duck ponds, the closest water source. It often required the help of a wrecker to tow the trucks from the mud the next day.

The men described large fires, such as the one that destroyed the John Duck Hotel, which sat just west of Union Avenue on the south side of Montauk Highway, in 1954. Mr. Robinson said he was on the roof when he opened a hose valve quicker than he should have, and its pressure would have sent him flying from the roof had it not been for another firefighter who grabbed him.

Among the more notable emergencies that department members, including Mr. Vicik, responded to was the rescue of 7-year-old Benny Hooper in 1957, after he fell into a 21-foot well in Manorville. The Eastport Fire Department was the only local outfit that had a long enough hose (50 feet) that could provide the boy with enough oxygen to survive until he was dug out 24 hours later, according to news reports.

The volunteers also described an era before safety standards were a part of firefighting. Mr. Vicik, who has served 70 years with the outfit, remembers when the Eastport School—now the Eastport Elementary School—burned down around 1928. He was in the fifth grade, he said, and the students were told to take down the curtains and use them to carry the books and school materials outside.

Firefighters today use thermal imaging to detect hot areas, and protect themselves with heavy equipment and self-contained breathing apparatus. “We just went in there taking a chance, I guess,” said Mr. Massey, who has 57 years vested with the department, describing the way firefighters would enter burning buildings to save others.

Some of the volunteers’ fondest memories were created during the department’s famous clam bakes and, later, barbecues, that still serve as annual fundraisers. They also recalled the crowds that would gather to watch the firefighters in competitions against other departments, in events called musters.

“The firemen are very skilled now,” Mr. Woronka said. “It’s a whole different ball game.”

All the men said they were pleased to see how far the department has come, and responded humbly when asked about their years of volunteer service.

“I’m proud of the fire department,” Mr. Massey said. “I don’t think there’s anybody any better than we are.”

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