From dusk to dawn, travelers entering Austin, especially those heading to the downtown fun spots, often notice sprinkled all over the older part of town clusters of six moon-like lights glowing atop strange metal contraptions. The 165-foot structures are Austin’s Moonlight Towers. They started illuminating the central part of the city in 1894 when the City Council traded an unused narrow-gauge railroad to the Fort Wayne Indiana Electric Company for thirty-one of its 5,000-pound towers. The Moonlight Towers propelled Austin into the modern age of the 1890s along with other cities like Detroit, New Orleans, and San Jose, California. Today, Austin is the only city in the U.S. continuing to light its streets with Moonlight Towers.
The towers arrived in pieces with assembly specifications requiring that the six carbon arc lamps in each structure spread a 3,000-foot circle of light bright enough to read an ordinary watch on the darkest night.
Guy wires extending over streets and across neighborhoods secure the giant structures. Originally, each Moonlight Tower connected to its own electric generator at the Colorado River Dam. Some claim that many residents expected the blue-white lights to wreck havoc with nature, cause crops to grow 24 hours a day and hens to lay eggs around the clock. Apparently, only a few roosters refused to stop crowing.
Although signs warn against climbing the towers, they have not been altogether safe. A short time after the lights began operating a workman fell to his death from the top of the tower at 9th and Guadalupe. In 1930, an 11-year-old boy, on a dare, climbed the tower at Wooldridge Square. After viewing the city, the boy became dizzy and fell through the inside of the triangular-shaped structure, his body miraculously ricocheting from side-to-side. He completely recovered in a month.
The city continued modernizing the towers over the years. Incandescent bulbs operated by switches at the base of each tower replaced the carbon arc lamps in the 1920s. Mercury vapor lamps were installed in 1936, and during WWII the need to quickly black out the city during air raids led to installing one central switch for all the towers. In 1993 all the towers underwent a complete overhaul, restoring every bolt, turnbuckle, and guy wire at a cost of $1.3 million.
Several towers have been moved, including the one in Zilker Park, which is strung from its top with extra guy wires to accommodate over 3,300 colored lights fanning out at its base to form a giant Christmas tree.
Although downtown construction forced the removal of two towers, the project manager at Austin Energy says both towers will be reactivated–one at a new location–at the conclusion of Austin’s building boom. When all the construction dust settles, Austin will boast 17 functioning Moonlight Towers. Boasting is appropriate for the towers have earned designation as State Archeological Landmarks, and in 1976 the towers won a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today the Moonlight Towers send their soft blue light across the city. Even if alternative lighting proves more efficient, don’t expect Austinites to allow all the old structures to disappear. They are unique among cities, objects of curiosity, and bring back a romantic memory of days when the towers reigned as both fashion and technological marvels.