Where’s The Fire?!

No matter how many references to the past I toss out on “06880,” alert readers always offer more. They dredge up memories buried deeper than the old town dump upon which the Westport Library now sits.

The other day, for example, I mentioned the former Vigilant Firehouse. It’s that slender structure on Wilton Road, in the parking lot behind the Inn at National Hall.

The Vigilant Firehouse, circa 1977. (Photo/Norwalk Hour, Bramac Studios)

The story was about 2 new restaurants moving to the area, but Doug Bond pounced on the building. Though he now lives in San Francisco, the story brought him back to his 1970s childhood on Edge Hill Road.

That’s the street that runs between Wilton Road and North Kings Highway. (It’s a fantastic little shortcut, though folks who live there always fume when I mention it publicly. So I won’t.)

A firehouse siren, Doug reminded me, blared every day at 5 p.m. It also sounded for every big fire, summoning volunteers to help fight the blaze.

How did they know where to go? A series of short and long blasts indicated exactly where in town it was. The number of times the signal was repeated indicated the seriousness of each fire.

The code, Doug says, was also published in the phone book. (I never knew that.) (If you don’t know what a “phone book” is, ask your parents.)

He remembers the terror he felt when 4 consecutive blasts — the signal for his part of town — rang out.

That code was also used by other firehouses in town. One night, home from college, I was awakened by a series of blasts. Things were ominous. I forget how I knew out the code, but I got up and drove a short distance from High Point to the Post Road.

Sure enough, the bowling alley — now Pier 1, near V Restaurant — was ablaze. You haven’t seen a real fire until you’ve seen bowling pins — sparked by the lacquered lanes — fly out through what used to be a roof.

I guess if you grew up in Westport, listening to fire sirens was a ritual we all shared.

Today, Doug notes, we find out where the fire is by checking our tweets.

35 responses to “Where’s The Fire?!

  1. Bonnie Scott Connolly

    When I was a student at Saugatuck Elementary School in sixth grade, Mrs Dunnigan could tell us exactly where a fire was when we heard the blasts from the fire station. For many other reasons, Ive never forgotten her.

    • Bonnie, I had Mrs. D the year before you and also recall her knowledge of the Westport fire alarm system. In the late 1940s her husband, who was Westport’s fire chief, was killed while answering an alarm.

      • I believe the fire was on Post Road West, near Sylvan Road. I think it involved a truck with flammable material. There were at least 2, if not more, fatalities. And I think I heard that Babe Ruth — shortly before his death — visited one of the firefighters (volunteer George “Nookie” Powers) in the hospital. I could be wrong about some of those details…

    • Sarah Wunsch

      I’m glad Bonnie mentioned Mrs. Dunnigan. She was a great 6th grade teacher and should not be forgotten. I don’t think I ever knew how she had lost her husband, until now. Sarah

      • Bonnie Scott Connolly

        Thanks, Sarah & Tom, for remembering Mrs. Dunnigan as I did. I never knew that she had lost her husband that way either. It feels so poignant now. I just thought it was cool that she knew the codes but had no idea what she must have felt every time she heard the fire whistle.

  2. I miss the Bowling Alley, The Driving Range and The Mini-Golf 🙁

    • Westport Expat

      My husband’s family owned that. We miss it too.

      • Fred Cantor

        Westport Expat–do you have old photos from those days and the complete history of those establishments? I think that’s a potential story for 06880. I used to go there in the 1960s, and my mom bowled in a league there, but I have no idea when the bowling alley opened up, or when the driving range and miniature golf started up. Thanks.

        • Westport Expat

          I don’t think we have photos on hand – other family members might, though. I’ll have to hit the hubby up for (accurate) background info. I do know it started as a family farm way back when.

          • If the memory banks are still clicking, the family farm was owned by the Backiel family. They built the bowling alley and the golf range and ran both operations for many years. I know the bowling alley was there in 1959 as I bowled on the team from the cop shop and that was the year I started. I think the driving range came later as the Stage Door Restaurant used to be located on that property. The morning the bowling alley fire was discovered, Stanley Backiel came to open early at his usual time and when he went to open the door, felt the heat coming off the doorknob. Wisely, he retreated and called the WFD. No telling what might have happened had he opened it.
            I couldn’t ever forget the truck fire. Chief Dennert was my wife’s uncle. I worked with John Saviano for many years and Chick Powers was a good friend.-

            • Westport Expat

              Your memory banks appear to be in fine shape.

              • Great french fries upstairs and my very first pool hall downstairs. And, a beat up old jeep in the woods behind the bowling alley where we used to abide. Wonderful memories.

  3. ……and……..Arnie’s Place!

  4. Here, here, Wrecker! BOTH mini-golfs … And the movie theaters!

  5. Rick Leonard

    Dan, great stuff. We actually had a Lone Pine Lane neighbor who liked to “chase” fires. She must have been a savvy alarm code cracker and recall her bringing us along on a call or two…

  6. Wally Meyer

    Back in the mid-80’s when I was a Second Selectman with Marty Hauhuth
    we used to go to the Vigilant Firehouse on Christmas Eve. At that time, the Firehouse was the site of the men’s shelter run by Interfaith Housing (now Homes with Hope). As we were chatting with the clients one of the men started to complain about some big houses that had been approved for construction on Imperial Ave. next to the river. It turned out he had been living in the shelter for two weeks. It certainly did not take long for him to become a real Westporter, as real Westporters always complain about zoning issues.

  7. The bowling alley went ablaze? When?? I dont remember.

  8. Richard Lawrence Stein

    Interesting… There is a major contingent of 06880ers and Westporters in general that have no idea that there was a Little League park next to the river on imperial… And that across the way was a sandpit/quarry/whathaveyou owned the Gaults… Oh the days

    • Gault Field. I remember it well. A wonderful little baseball oasis on the Saugatuck.

  9. Sven Davidson

    Three miniature golf courses. The one few remember was on Hillspoint, across from the Penquin, just south of Hales.

    • The miniature golf course across from the Penguin was owned and operated by Gil Giannitti. It was always a favorite when we attended Staples.-Dick Alley

  10. Jane Nordli Jessep

    The firehouses not only let us know when it was 5 o’clock ( a great way for kids to know it was time to go home, since everyone played after school unsupervised by parents, OMG, how did we manage to survive?) but the firehouses also blared their horns when it was a SNOW DAY!!!

  11. such a great building. trying to remember the name of the pizza place that was in there before the pogenpohl kitchen showcase?

  12. Dennis Jackson

    Bee-yonk! Bee-yonk! In the mid-50s, the WFD issued a “secret decoder card” we could refer to.

  13. Fire Chief at the Post Road truck fire was Frank Dennert. I believe Mr. Dunnigan was a Lieutenant . Chickie Powers and John Saviano were volunteers and were burned in the fire and hospitalized. Babe Ruth played a lot of golf at Birchwood, and John Saviano was always his caddy. When he arrived for a game of golf and learned about the fire, he went to visit John and the others in the hospital and gave them autographed baseballs. John went on to retire as a Lieutenant for the Westport PD and Chick retired to Maine. Chick was a very active PAL volunteer before retiring to Maine. – Dick Alley

  14. Tony Masiello

    When I was a kid in the 70’s, I had a printed version of the fire horn codes. I kept that in my room for years and can remember hearing the alarm for several big fires including the Long Lots school fire and the Carousel toy store. I wish I still had that… I also remember being startled half to death when I happened to be walking in front of the Y at 5pm. The horn was a tad louder there than it was from up on Cross Hwy…

  15. Nancy Powers Conklin

    My father, George Powers, was also injured in the fire where the Fire Chief lost his life. Dan, you were right in everything you said. My uncle, Chick Powers, my father’s brother, was also injured. Both my father and my uncle got a visit from Babe Ruth and he signed baseballs for them. My father was in the hospital for 3 months and they administered Last Rights thinking he could never have survived his burn wounds, but he did. My uncle Chick was not burned as badly but, he did lose parts of both ears not affecting his hearing. Chick, the last of the three Powers brothers, passed away two years ago at the age of 85. Matter of fact, all three Powers brothers died either in their 85th year or pretty close to it. I believe the fire dept. at that time had mostly volunteers, which my uncle and father both were.

  16. Dennis Jackson’s perfectly pitched “BeeYonk BeeYonk” brought the sound to life again (as does Dan’s post) I’d totally forgotten when I mentioned it to Dan that the blasts went off from all the firehouses in town, or at least the ones I could hear. From my parent’s house up off Edge Hill (looking down towards the river) and particularly in the months of bare branches, we’d first hear the Vigilant siren blast and then a slightly behind the beat — and, to our ears, lower pitched — blast from the main station by the YMCA (“BeeYonk…BeeYonk”) And then yet another echo from as far away as Saugatuck station.

    btw…our home (built in ’66), on Edge Hill was sited on a rock ledge and was directly above the long gone Comet Cleaners. A dead end off Edge Hill which became our driveway (apparently, originally called Apple Jack…something? owing to the crabapple trees that grew wild there) had functioned in the earlier part of this last century as an “off the map” discreet dumping ground and then later as lover’s lane….but that’s another story…for Dan?

  17. David Abrams

    I can still here the fire horn in my mind’s ear. I always slept with the window open and can remember many times when I got out of bed, went to the window, and listened to the fire horn. In summer months I’d open the window wide, listen to the horn, smell the night air, look and the sky and take in other night sounds. Even though the horn always meant trouble for someone it was a comforting sound.

  18. Linda Gramatky Smith

    Ditto to what Tony Masiello shared, but even earlier (in the 1950s) residents could get a sheet of paper (from the Fire Dept. or Town Hall?) with all the fire codes listed on it. My dad had it tacked up in our garage, so whenever we heard the fire horn blast, we ran out to check “where is the fire?”. If it was close enough, we even walked to see what was going on. I always figured they stopped that system when non-firefighters showing up at a fire endangered the rescue!

  19. Pete Brummel

    I remember the Coleytown fire station with the same horn blasts.

  20. Well then I reckon ol’ Doug Bond will recall the terror he must have felt when Ted Reynolds died burning down the family mansion at the base of Edge Hill in ’74.