Looking Back: Phoenix Fire Company No.2/Warren Light Artillery/Etta O’Neill Library

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, August 11, 2021

By Nancy Bell, Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation

The Phoenix Fire Company was organized on April 27, 1837. Ironically their first fire station burned in 1870 and the new building, shown in this 1876 photograph, was built shortly thereafter at 909 Walnut Street. 

In 1879, the fire department held its annual Fireman’s Parade, which Vicksburgers looked forward to every year as a day of “pleasure and festivity,” however this year the parade was held in a much more somber tone because it came at the end of the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878. 

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The fire department lost at least 15 men to the disease including two chiefs, J.F. Doll and W.M. Rockwood. Instead of decorating their engines in happy colors, the engines were draped in mourning. Members of the Phoenix Fire Company draped their steamer, R.F. Beck, “with a great deal of taste, and presented a very handsome appearance in spite of the presence of the crape.

“The smoke-stack was surmounted by an immense pair of elk horns, the tips of which were ornamented with balls of gold.” (If you look closely at the historic photograph, above the door of the right half hang elk horns.) 

“The engine was wrapped with crape, wreathed with sprays of beautiful, pure white flowers with an occasional green leaf. A streamer of black silk fringed with silver, hung in front, bearing the inscription, “in memory of our dead,” and in the rear hung a large-sized portrait of the late Mayor J.F. Doll, formerly foreman of the Phoenix and ex-chief of the Fire Department.” 

In 1886, the building was listed as Steam Fire Engine House #2 on the left and Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1 on the right. In 1893, Warren Light Artillery was deeded the building by the Phoenix Fire Company, which would remain in the north half of the building. “Warrens” hired architect William Stanton to design a new building in which to store their guns and to hold meetings. An article in the Vicksburg Evening Post reported that with the new building, “the battery have every reason to expect that they will receive a complete equipment of the latest and most improved guns, as it is a well-known fact, that the Warren Light Artillery is the best-organized company in the State, and could take the field in an hour if the Governor should so order.” 

The Warren Battery had its beginnings as Swett’s Battery, commanded by Maj. Charles Swett, organized at the outbreak of the war and entered the conflict with one hundred men. The Battery fought in a number of locations and at the end of the war, only nine of its original members were still alive. Reorganized in Vicksburg shortly after the war, Warren’s was a part of the Mississippi National Guard and in 1893 owned two three-inch rifles, a Gatling gun and sidearms. 

They practiced drills, should they be called into a conflict, but also marching drills for peacetime parades and special events. While for about seven months, Vicksburg newspapers discussed the plan to demolish the right half of the building on Walnut Street and build a two-story building, it appears that this never happened. They continued to operate out of the south side until it was demolished in 1913 because it was in a dilapidated state. The remaining left half, in addition to being a fire station, housed the chief’s horse and buggy. 

By 1925, the building was no longer a fire station and was listed as being used for storage, and then by 1948 was a garage. 

Thankfully, a new life was created for the building in 1954 when it was converted into the Etta O’Neill Library, named for Henrietta “Etta” Moran O’Neill. Etta O’Neill was married to C.J. O’Neill, Sr., one of the founders of the O’Neill McNamara Hardware Company. According to her obituary in the Vicksburg Post in November 1955, Etta was a native of Cascade, Iowa who moved to Vicksburg as a bride in 1897.

“She was active in many fields of community life. She served as president of the Civic League, an influential group which brought about such public improvements as the public library, the Monroe Street boulevard and others. She was a member of the board of trustees of the Vicksburg Public Library from its organization until her death, and during most of that period she served as secretary. The new public library for colored, the Etta O’Neill Library was named in her honor.” 

She was also involved in church work and raised two sons. When the library branch was consolidated into the new library, the building became the offices of the city’s planning and inspection department and then the home of We Care Community Center.