Following the invention by Thomas Edison of the incandescent light bulb, illuminating public streets with electric lamps gradually became more common during the latter part of the 19th Century, but rather than the comparatively short streetlamps most of us are familiar with today, many US cities were lit by tall towers which illuminated large areas. Streetlamps would have been impractical for a lot of American cities and towns of the time because so many of their roadways were unsurfaced and unpaved.
In the early part of the 1890s, the City Fathers of Austin decided that the capital city of Texas ought to have a grand lighting system which the inhabitants could be proud of, and on 19 March, 1894, Austin City Council ratified a proposal to order 31 lighting towers made of cast- and wrought-iron from the Fort Wayne Electric Company in Indiana. The total cost was to be $70,000 in cash, and a narrow gauge railroad in trade. Although 31 were ordered, it is rumoured that only 30 were delivered and erected, although another story tells that 31 towers were put up but one collapsed soon after and was not replaced. The contract also included the installation of generators at the new Granite Dam1 nearby on the Colorado River which would provide the electricity to power the lamps. The aforementioned railroad had been used to transport granite during construction of the dam.
Before the towers were erected, there was a certain amount of dissent among some of the populace concerning the effects of such bright light throughout the night hours. Farmers said that it would be impossible to harvest the giant corn which would grow, that grass would have to be cut with an axe, and that chickens would lay eggs 24 hours a day. These claims were of course unfounded, and work on the first tower - at the corner of Speedway and West 41st Street in the Hyde Park area of town - began in late 1894. They were switched on for the first time on 6 May, 1895, and Austin soon became known as 'The City of Eternal Moonlight'. It is also said that the nickname 'City of the Violet Crown', which was coined by writer O Henry2 in his short story Tictocq: The Great French Detective in Austin was a reference to the purple-ish glow from the moonlight towers and the fact that so many of them were situated on hills and high points throughout the city.
At first glance it would be easy to mistake the moonlight towers for radio masts, being triangular in section and constructed of a lattice of ironwork. Each one stands 165 feet (50m) tall3, weighs approximately two tons (2,270Kg), is mounted on a single 15-foot (5m) iron pole, and is stabilised with a network of guy wires. When first put up, each of the towers was topped by six 2000 candlepower carbon arc lamps pointing straight downwards. It was intended that the light they gave off should be bright enough to allow anyone standing up to 1500 feet (about 450m) away to be able to tell the time from a pocketwatch. In 1925 the carbon lamps were replaced by incandescent lamps, and in 1936 by yet more powerful (6400 watt) mercury vapour lamps. At first, each tower had its own switch, but during World War Two it was decided that they should be switched on and off from a central location in case of air-raids. In fact, they have only been darkened three times - from April 1900 to January 1901 following a flood which destroyed the Granite Dam, for a week in 1905 during a dispute between the City Council and the Water and Light Commission, and again for a short time during the worldwide energy crisis in 1973.
Time Takes its Toll
Today only 17 towers remain - the others have fallen prey to decay or motor vehicle damage, and while downtown Austin's skyline underwent much upward growth during the 1990s, the Moonlight Towers though dwarfed by many of the new buildings, are still unmistakable once the sun has gone down, particularly as many of them are in low-rise residential areas and on high ground in various parts of Austin.
In 1993 the city began a $1.3 million restoration project in preparation for the towers' 100th anniversary, and each one now has a small plaque at its base bearing the inscription:
AUSTIN'S MOONLIGHT TOWERS
This is one of 31 original moonlight
towers installed in Austin in 1895.
Seventeen remain. Each tower
illuminated a circle of 3,000 feet
using carbon arc lamps (now mercury
vapor). Austin's tower lights are the
sole survivors of this once popular
ingenious lighting system.
The towers are listed as historic landmarks by local (Austin) and state (Texas) governments, and added by national (US) government to the list when on July 12, 1976, they were entered into the US National Register of Historic Places. Birthday parties are held at the base of some of the towers each year on 6 May, and moonlight towers appear in several scenes in Austin film director Richard Linklater's film Dazed and Confused.
The Remaining Towers
- Nueces Street and West 4th Street
- Guadalupe Street and West 9th Street
- Blanco Street and West 12th Street
- Rio Grande Street and West 12th Street
- San Antonio Street and West 15th Street
- Nueces Street and West 22nd Street
- Speedway and West 41st Street
- Lydia Street and East 1st Street
- Trinity Street and East 1st Street
- Trinity Street and East 11th Street
- Coleto Street and East 13th Street
- Chicon Street and Martin Luther King Blvd. (East 19th Street)
- Leona Street and Pennsylvania Street
- Eastside Drive and Leland Street
- South 1st Street and West Monroe Street
- Canterbury Street and West Lynn Street
- Zilker Park
Some reports say that the tower in Zilker Park is a replica built in the 1960s, others that it was an original Moontower relocated from Congress Avenue to make way for a development. Yet another that it originally stood in Emma Long Park and replaced a replica tower in Zilker Park. Either way, every December (since 1965) its supporting wires have been augmented by about 20 extra wires - rather like a giant maypole - which are strung with over 3000 coloured 25 watt bulbs to create what must be (At 165 feet tall) one of the most impressive Christmas trees in the US. The Zilker Tree thus becomes the centre piece of Austin's annual 'Trail of Lights'.