The Vigilant Engine and Hook & Ladder
Company’s History 1904-2004
At the start of the 20th century, railroad
tracks had crept eastward to what is now called Great
Neck Plaza but was known then as Thomaston, On election
day in November, 1904, a group of the peninsula’s
citizens recognized the need for fire protection at the
station. Discussions began inside a building on North
Station Plaza which was owned by W.R. Grace, the
steamship magnate responsible for developing much of
Great Neck. This building would soon become the first
firehouse of the Vigilant Fire Company.
About 12 men, including several from the Alert Fire
Company which had its headquarters in the upper village,
were granted a charter from the Town of North Hempstead
for a fire company. Thus the first page in the history
of the Vigilant Fire Company was written when the
company was formally incorporated on November 21, 1904.
In those days a fire bell sounded the alarm at the
firehouse. Horses, used to pull the apparatus, borrowed
from Robertson’s Bakery located down the street across
from the station. The horses are long gone, but the bell
stands in front of the “new” firehouse on Cuttermill
Road. Today it is rung ceremoniously on Memorial Day and
in honor of deceased members.
The Vigilants’ first alarm occurred in 1905, when they
were summoned to extinguish a hayloft fire on the
property of Captain Frederick Russell, situated at the
corner of what is now Middle Neck Road and Northern
Boulevard. The “Men” did such a good job at the blaze
that Captain Russell presented them with an inscribed
fire trumpet, which today rests in one of the company’s
trophy cases and is occasionally
carried by the Chief in parades.
Shortly after their organization, the Vigilants found a
generous benefactor, William K. Vanderbilt, the Long
Island millionaire who was in the habit of associating
himself with the Great Neck Fire Companies. Mr.
Vanderbilt had no sooner pocketed his checkbook after
signing a $1,000 gift for the Alert firemen, when a
group of the Vigilants solicited his aid. Their first
major piece of equipment, a Waterous gasoline engine for
pumping water was purchased with his loan of $1, 500.
When he received the first installment toward the loan,
Vanderbilt marked the promissory note “PAID” so that
funds could be
used towards additional equipment.
Vanderbilt took an interest in the new company and through
his aid and guidance the Vigilants grew. He was
delighted in seeing the fire company in action and at
one time he staged a fire drill at his Lake Success
mansion. Calling the men and equipment of the fire
company to his home one afternoon, Vanderbilt watched
eagerly as the members placed ladders and dragged hoses
according to the accepted standards of firefighting in
those days. Mrs. Vanderbilt also joined in the fun,
running into the house midway through
the mock firefighting proceedings to scream for help.
the firemen scaled the ladders in the best heroic
fashion and hauled
Mrs. Vanderbilt and an accomplice
down from the “blazing inferno”.
But, in order to maintain their three pieces of equipment,
a hook and ladder, a hose reel tender, and a pumper, the
Vigilants were still forced to hustle for funds. Among
their money-raising devices were public dances, fairs,
minstrel shows and solicitation campaigns. On several
occasions out-door plays were staged with the assistance
of many show people who made their homes in Great Neck
including Gene Buck and Joseph Santley. Other show
business people who joined the ranks of the Vigilants
included Ed Wynn, known for his advertisements for
Texaco Fire Chief Gasoline.
The firehouse, a former barn sometimes used as a theatre
and at other times a church, was employed frequently to
present Edison Motion Pictures for the entertainment of
the public and for the enrichments of the Vigilants’
coffers. The firehouse was the first
movie theatre in Great Neck.
In 1913 the financial worries of the Vigilants were
alleviated somewhat by the passage of the Maloney Act, a
bill which gave towns the authority to contract with
departments for fire protection. An agreement between
the Vigilants and the Alerts provided that the company
who arrived first to the scene was the one which would
be paid for the fire. By 1914, the Vigilants were
sporting a check for $1,500 from the Town of north
Hempstead. In the ensuing years, with the organization
of the peninsula’s incorporated villages,
they received additional contracts.
The funding mechanism for most of the company’s expenses
remained the same today. The Vigilant Fire Company
provides fire protection to all of Great Neck Estates
and Kensington, parts of Thomaston, Great Neck Plaza and
the unincorporated areas north of the railroad tracks.
Emergency Medical Services are provided to all of Great
which lies north of the Long Island Railroad.
The first Foreman of the Vigilant Fire Company, William
Mullon, lived in a house next to the then firehouse
where a hotel now stands. It was his job to sound the
alarm when there was a fire. When telephone service
became available either he or his wife would be at home
at all times to answer the call. In later years a staff
of full time dispatchers known as engineers was hired to
man the watch desk and maintain the equipment. The first
step toward new technology occurred with the
installation of an electric powered siren which replaced
the bell as the means to summon the Vigilant volunteer
members to alarms. The 1920’s saw the apparatus become
completely motorized with the purchase of a “Bulldog”
Mack pumper, a new hook and ladder truck, and a
“booster” truck, one of the first fire trucks to carry
its own water in order to make a fast attack on
Despite the Great Depression of 1929, the Vigilants were
able to grow during the 1930’s. A new American LaFrance
1,000 gallon per minute pumper was placed in service in
1932. It too had a water tank rather than the chemical
extinguisher system which was typical for the day. This
engine remained in service until replacement in 1964. It
was sold to Ex-Captain Edward Power who drove the truck
to Florida. In 1980 the Vigilant membership bought the
truck back from a collector who had acquired it from
Captain Power’s widow. Upon its return to Great Neck,
old Engine 6 was restored to a new condition, and to
this day it is proudly displayed at parades, antique
fire truck musters and other special events.
Other advancements accomplished during the depression era
of the 1930’s included purchases of the Vigilants’ first
floodlight truck, an all steel hydraulic aerial ladder
truck and the community’s first ambulance. A major fire
occurred at the apartment building located at 21 Barstow
Road, where Engine 6 pumped for more than 24 hours
straight at the hydrant located at Grace Avenue and
Barstow Road. The fire was so big that mutual-aid was
requested from as far away as Glen Cove and Hempstead.
The need to also summon a ladder truck from New York
City quelled resistance by some people in the community
for purchasing the aerial ladder.
No fire department is complete without having a Dalmatian
for a mascot, and at various times through the years the
Vigilants actually had three of the spotted firehouse
dogs. The first one, named Smokey, was around during the
1930’s. In those days powerful springs triggered by a
rope were used to open the apparatus door. Smokey
learned to jump up, pull the rope and open the door
whenever the siren blew. As a result, in summer or
winter, the dispatcher would blow the 6-oclock siren
test and then close the door. Another Smokey lived with
the Vigilants circa 1950 and Woodstock was a Vigilant
during the early 1980’s.
World War II created a heavy burden throughout the nation,
and the Vigilants experienced its share of problems
caused by so many members serving in the military. To
adapt to the times, there was no change of chiefs until
after the war ended. As a result, Chief Frank Gilliar,
Sr. served the longest term for a chief, 11 years from
1936-1947. During those years, the first women in the
Vigilants helped to staff the ambulance service.
Virginia Grahm, a well known radio personality who lived
in Great Neck, regularly drove the ambulance on calls.
After the war, it was possible to once again buy motor
vehicles of all types. The Vigilants purchased a new 700
series American LaFrance pumper in 1947, and a Mack
pumper in 1952. The Mack, which also has been preserved
as an antique, is unique in its construction. The
chassis was built in Maspeth, Queens at a time when Mack
Trucks was in the midst of a corporate re-location. The
unfinished truck was moved to Allentown, PA, where its
final assembly was completed. World War II also provided
the technology for 2-way radio, and in the early 1950’s
the Vigilants first installed a radio base station at
the firehouse and mobile radios on key apparatus.
The Soundview Golf Course was located in the Village of
Great Neck Estates in the section west of Bayview
Avenue. Its clubhouse was the site of many Vigilant
installation dinners until the club closed its doors in
1949. Strangely, a month before the clubhouse was to be
demolished, the Vigilants were summoned to a fire which
had the building fully engulfed upon arrival of the
But another fire with a different ending occurred on
January 7, 1957, at a house on Wilbur Drive. That day
Firefighter Edward Dixon successfully rescued a young
child who was trapped in the burning house. For his
heroism, Dixon was presented the first “Fireman of the
Year” Award by the Firemen’s Association of the State of
Other rescues have been performed through the years at 12
Bond Street, 1 Ash Place and 7 Bond Street. Eighteen
members of the Vigilant Fire Company proudly display red
valor bars on their dress uniforms in recognition of
rescues of trapped victims at fires. Sadly, there have
also been those who could not be saved or who have been
seriously injured at fires; this serves as a reminder
that despite all its glory, firefighting in Great Neck
very real and can be dangerous.
This was demonstrated on April 17, 1959, when a major fire
destroyed a building on Middle Neck Road opposite Cedar
Drive. The fire started in a wood finishing shop and the
owner received severe burns on his arms when vapors from
varnish fumes ignited explosively.
By the late 1950’s, the Vigilants had outgrown their
original wood frame firehouse on North Station Plaza,
and a new firehouse was built on Cuttermill Road in
1957. The property was donated by a widow who lived in
an old house with a spire atop the hill which is now a
parking lot. In return for her gift she was allowed to
live in her house for the rest of her life, and it was
the job of the engineers to check on her every day.
Today, the original firehouse on North Station Plaza is
a funeral home.
The Vigilants continued as a progressive organization with
the introduction of Plectron radios in the early 1960’s.
These devices sound the fire alarm in the members’ homes
or businesses and replaced a telephone calling chain
performed by several members’ wives as a way to alert
those who could not hear the sirens. Also the first
trucks with enclosed cabs arrived; a new floodlight
truck in 1960 and a new pumper in 1964. In 1967 the
Vigilants were among the first on Long Island to put an
elevated bucket into service. The Pittman Snorkel had a
bucket at the end of an 85 foot boom.
These new trucks saw much action in the late 1960’s, and
the early 1970’s during what was dubbed the “beauty
parlor wars”. Almost every beauty parlor in the Great
Neck Plaza area was burned out over a 4 year period.
A huge fire occurred on Memorial Day weekend in 1969 at
Middle Neck Road and Maple Drive. The suspicious fire
had the basement fully involved on arrival, and it
quickly spread upward throughout the building.
Firefighting operations continued for more than 12
hours, and mop-up operations were not completed until 3
days had passed. Mutual-aid assistance was summoned from
the entire Eighth Fire Battalion, and because the local
draft board, located on the 2nd floor was
destroyed by the fire, FBI agents arrived on the scene
shortly after the fire department. One of the
occupancies was a beauty parlor.
Technical advancements allowed radios to become smaller in
the 1970’s. Handie-talkies became the standard means to
communicate on the fire ground. Also, personal pagers
were implemented to call out members to alarms. In 1974,
the traditional Cadillac ambulance was replaced with a
“box” type ambulance as emergency medical services
entered a new generation. Members of the Vigilants
started training in 1975 and 1976 as emergency medical
technicians at both basic and advanced levels. Advanced
life support was introduced to Great Neck as life saving
medications and cardiac defibrillation became routinely
administered by the volunteers of the Vigilant Fire
Company. On August 11, 1977, these new techniques saw
their first success when a victim in full cardiac arrest
was successfully revived at the scene of a wedding
reception in Kings Point. Through the years many other
people have similarly benefited from the Vigilant
ambulance and its highly trained members.
As more tall buildings were built, the Vigilants saw the
need for a second ladder truck, and a rear-mount 100
foot aerial ladder was purchased in 1976. Large diameter
hose was also introduced to provide maximum water supply
from hydrants to the pumpers. In 1977 the first
“Jaws-of-Life” arrived; this powerful hydraulic rescue
tool allows firefighters to rapidly pry and cut their
way to trapped victims.
Also in 1977, the Vigilants had to quickly adapt to rural
firefighting operations when the community water system
suffered a major failure which lasted for several days.
The first step was to convert a local sewer cleaning
machine to a high pressure booster truck. The rig was
the first line of defense along with the makeshift water
tanker until a mutual-aid tanker and crew relocated for
3 days from the Eatons Neck Fire Department in Suffolk
County. Fortunately, there were no major fires, but
Vigilant members came away with an appreciation for how
fires are fought in communities which have no fire
In 1979 the Vigilant Fire Company celebrated its 75th
anniversary. A block party was held on Cuttermill Road
in one of the few remaining vacant lots in the downtown
area, and a parade was held which proceeded from
Allenwood Road, down Middle Neck Road and then past the
firehouse. But the “highlight” of the celebration was a
major fire in a row of stores on Bond Street which
happened just after preparations for the festivities had
The 1980’s saw the Vigilants continue to keep up with the
community’s needs. A heavy duty rescue truck which
replaced the floodlight truck has seen repeated duty not
only at fires, but also at many serious auto accidents
especially along the Bayview Avenue corridor.
On September 10, 1981, the Vigilants responded to a
building collapse at a local health club which had been
converted from an auto dealership. First arriving
firefighters learned that a woman was confirmed to be
trapped in the swimming pool under the falling ceiling,
and it was not known how many others might be inside.
Debris was carefully cut away to gain access to the
victim who was removed to the hospital with only minor
injuries. An extensive search revealed that there were
no other victims.
Another rescue situation occurred almost halfway into the
decade near the New York City border when the Long
Island Railroad tracks washed out during a serious
thunder storm. A passing train filled with passengers
became trapped in mid-air and was suspended only by the
drooping rails. The Vigilants responded, and
all the victims to safety.
A new mini-pumper, bought in 1985, gave firefighters rapid
access to car fires which could happen in any of the
numerous underground parking garages which are now
common in Great neck. The Fire Police Squad was
formalized to act as an integral support unit to
firefighting operations; its sergeant is appointed by
the Chief each year.
The EMS mission of the Vigilants continued to grow with an
increasingly large number of calls and greater training
demands being placed on EMTs. A second ambulance was
placed in service in 1983, and the Fire Medic Squad was
formed in 1984. The squad allowed members to serve only
in the medical operation of the Company without the need
to train for firefighting skills. Women once again
became an important part of the Vigilant membership,
both as medics and as firefighters.
To house the additional equipment a larger firehouse was
needed. An addition which doubled the size of the
Vigilants’ building was opened in 1981. In addition to
more room for apparatus, new space was allocated for a
modern dispatch room, a more complete workshop and much
needed office and administrative areas. Training
facilities were augmented by a new classroom and a 4
story training tower which permits training with live
In the mid-1980’s, serious environmental damage to the
marshlands at the south end of Little Neck Bay was
averted when Vigilant members used created a dike to
mitigate a major oil spill and prevented it from
entering the storm water drainage system. The Vigilants
represented the residents of Great Neck in 1990 when
they responded mutual aid to the Avianca Airlines crash
in Oyster Bay Cove, and the Sands Point Nursing Home
fire in Port Washington.
In the early 1990’s, the Vigilant Fire Company was
approached by the Village of Kensington to dispatch
their police department, a service which continues
today. Also in 1996, dispatch of the Manhasset-Lakeville
Fire Department was started. In 2003, the Vigilant
engineers dispatched a total of 4147 emergency calls.
Training has always been a priority for the Vigilants
starting with the first drills held at the home of
Honorary Chief Vanderbilt. Regular classes and exercises
are held each month, and the company attends classes at
the Nassau County Fire Service Academy in Old Bethpage
where drills with live fires are conducted in several
special props which present typical fire situations.
Other classes are held in technical rescue, vehicle
extrication, hazardous materials, and firefighting
tactics. Ambulance personnel are trained to at least the
level of Emergency Medical Technician with many
continuing on to Advanced Emergency Medical Technician
and some to the Paramedic level. All training meets or
exceeds the standards established by New York State, the
National Fire Academy and the
National Fire Protection Association.
In 1996, a huge brush fire occurred in Suffolk County.
Response involved every fire department on Long Island.
Vigilant members with a pumper worked at this fire for
48 hours until the fire was brought under control.
Throughout the 1990’s the number of EMS calls continued to
skyrocket. In 1998 a third ambulance was added to the
fleet. To ensure the fastest response possible to the
northern part of Great Neck, space for this vehicle was
rented from the Alert Fire Company at their annex
firehouse on Steamboat Road. Utilization of the
ambulance service has risen from once or twice a week
when it was started in 1937 to 1582 calls in 2003.
The new century saw the Vigilants continuing on the
forefront with the latest in equipment and skills.
Examples include computer-aided dispatch, thermal
imaging cameras, and digital gas and atmospheric
metering equipment to name a few.
But the Vigilants’ darkest day came on September 11, 2001
when terrorists flew two airliners into the World Trade
Center in Manhattan. The Vigilants quickly responded to
the requests for help and units were assigned to the
city immediately that morning and at various times for
the next week. During that first afternoon, the tragedy
hit home when word came that Vigilant First Assistant
Chief Jonathan Ielpi, who was a New York City
firefighter was missing. Chief Ielpi’s body was
recovered from the rubble 3 months later. In 2002 a
local park on Grace Avenue was dedicated to his memory,
and a statue portraying him was unveiled in 2003 at a
memorial devoted to Great Neck firefighters killed in
the line of duty.
The advent of terrorism within our nation’s borders
brought a whole new dimension to firefighting. In
addition to the standard firefighting and rescue skills,
members must now be trained in response to incidents
involving weapons of mass destruction and
decontamination of large numbers of people.
As Emergency Medical Services continued to grow and place
even more of a strain on the Vigilant resources, a
source for new members was found at the United States
Merchant Marine Academy where students receive EMT
training. Starting in 2003 members of the student body
responded as part of the Vigilant cadre to assist those
in need of help on the community.
In addition to responding to fires, the Vigilants continue
to encounter victims in need of rescue or extrication,
including a dolphin which beached itself in Great Neck
Estates in 2003. But serious automobile accidents remain
the biggest use for the Hurst Tool, (Jaws of Life). This
was typified also during the summer of 2003 when the
driver of a car on Bayview Avenue was impaled in the
abdomen by a falling tree branch which crashed through
his windshield. The victim was successfully rescued,
treated and transported to the hospital where he fully
recovered. Not every case has a happy ending, but most
do thanks to the untiring efforts of the Vigilant
The Vigilants continue to move forward as they pass the
milestone of 100 years of service. The business of
firefighting has changed many times over the years, but
the mission of helping those in need and the vital role
of the Vigilant Fire Company remains the same. Today’s
members, 144 strong, are a true demographic mix of
people who come from every ethnic group found in Great
Neck. In 2003, they answered the call to 1892
emergencies. And, they stand ready to serve their
community with the same determination and spirit held by
those of the original charter and incorporate the
Vigilant Engine and Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, Inc.
of Thomaston, New York.