When the city of Austin first began erecting moonlight towers to illuminate their city, locals had their reservations. What kind of effects would such unnatural phenomena have on their way of life? Would the crops take to growing twenty-four hours a day? Would the chickens lay eggs through the night, exhausting themselves to the point of death? Remove the circadian rhythm of nature, they pondered, and what chaos would ensue?
Their worries were, of course, unfounded; with the exception of a few confused roosters who took to crowing in the evening, the moonlight towers had little effect on the town other than allowing its inhabitants to walk through the streets with a clear-lit path.
Moonlight towers, or moontowers, gained popularity through the late nineteenth century throughout the U.S. and Europe. The soaring metal beanstalks were usually decked with a set of carbon-arc lamps which could shed light on the surrounding blocks. Carbon-arc lights, the first practical use of electricity for light, produced a warm, bluish glow in the form of an electric arc—a glow much like that cast by the moon. The light of the moontowers was intended to be bright enough to allow a passerby to read a common pocket watch on the darkest of nights.
But why would a city choose to install the sky-scraping moonlight towers rather than standard street lighting? In many cases, the smaller light posts were impractical; erecting multiple, short posts, especially in rough, unnavigable lands, was expensive. Such was the case in Austin. In the last decade of the 1800’s, Austin was still underdeveloped, its streets unpaved, and its slopes difficult to traverse. Building an extensive series of lampposts would be inefficient and expensive in such a city, so instead they installed a collection of moontowers. In further evidence of their thriftiness, Austin chose not to buy the moonlight towers new but instead purchased used towers from the city of Detroit in 1894. They shipped the thirty-one towers south and soon the city was aglow all the night through.
Austin’s towers were each 165-feet tall and stood on a base that extended fifteen feet across the ground. Each tower was decked with six carbon-arc lamps that shed their light in a 1,500-foot radius. Following the public’s original hesitation to accept them, Austin’s moonlight towers became icons of the city. Long after other cities around the world abandoned theirs for more modern lighting innovations, Austin continued to use and invest in their towers. In the 1920’s, the carbon-arc lamps, which had become increasingly pricey to operate and preserve, were replaced with incandescent lamps, then mercury vapor lamps in the ’30’s. Other modernizations were made to the towers, such as a master switch during World War II which allowed the city to plunge all of Austin into darkness in the event of an air raid.
Across the world, moonlight towers were dismantled and replaced, but Austin still retained their second-hand lamps. Today Austin is the only city in the world with operational moonlight towers. Though natural events and accidental mishaps have significantly diminished the number of towers in the city, seventeen still stand today. In the 1970’s, the remaining towers were designated as Texas State Landmarks and then listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1993 the city undertook a massive $1.3 million project to restore all of the towers, a feat that was finally completed in 1995 and celebrated with a city-wide festival.
In a city where individuality is a point of pride, even the historical landmarks are completely unique. Though their numbers have declined and very few remain in their original locations, Austin’s moonlight towers are still honored icons of the city. In the cult classic Dazed and Confused, which is famously set in Austin, Matthew McConaughey’s character proclaims, “Party at the moon tower!” Given the long history of Austin’s devotion to its moonlight towers, it’s probably a line that will stay relevant for decades to come.
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