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Moonlight Towers - 1895

Moonlight Tower In the Austin of the 1890's many areas were underdeveloped, hilly, and unpaved. This presented a problem when it came to lighting the streets. In place of normal street lights the City of Austin opted for 31 towers to provide artificial light to the rapidly growing city. Such light towers were already a common form of lighting in many U.S. cities in the late 19th century. The Austin light towers, erected in 1894-1895 by the Fort Wayne Electric Company of Indiana, were approximately 165 feet tall, weighed about 5,000 pounds and used a series of guy wires to keep them vertical. Over the years many of the original 31 towers were lost to construction, errant vehicles and other unfortunate circumstances. Today just 17 of the towers remain standing in Austin. These 17 towers are the last surviving examples of the once popular tower lighting system commonly used throughout the country. They are now designated as official state archeological landmarks and are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

When the first moonlight towers were constructed residents feared that the lights would cause havoc with the forces of nature. They feared that the artificial light would cause their crops to grow 24 hours a day and that egg-laying hens would be driven to lay eggs 24 hours a day. Other than reports of few confused roosters who reportedly "never knew when to stop crowing" the lights produced no negative side effects. However, the towers were by no means trouble-free. Only weeks after the the towers began operating a workman, Gilbert Searight, fell to his death from the top of the tower at 9th and Guadalupe. At least one tower collapsed soon after it was erected. Despite these troubles and the towers themselves sometimes being referred to as "ugly". The glowing light they produced, commonly called "artificial moonlight" was reportedly quite beautiful.

The "artificial moonlight" was originally prduced by a then relatively new device called a carbon arc lamp. These original carbon arc lamps illuminated a circle approximately 3,000 feet in diameter with a blue-white light. The light was intended to be bright enough that you could read an ordinary pocket watch on midnight of even the darkest of nights. The city electric department employed one person whose sole responsibility was to maintain the carbon arc lamps and light the towers each day. In 1923, the city replaced the carbon arc lamps with incandescent bulbs and switches were installed at the base of each tower. During World War II, the need to quickly black out the city dictated that the switches be replaced with one central switch. The towers now use 6,400-watt mercury vapor bulbs and the illumination is fully automated.

In 1990-91 the city refurbished the tower located at South First and Monroe. The construction of the new Austin Convention Center forced the relocation of one tower to First (Cesar-Chavez) and Trinity. An errant automobile damaged the tower at 22nd and Nueces forcing the dismantling of the tower. These two towers were refurbished before being put back up. In 1993 the city began a two-year long project to restore the remaining 14 towers at a cost of $1.3 million.

Locations of the remaining 17 towers...
  • Leland St. and Eastside Dr (NE corner)
  • Monroe St. and S. 1st S (SW corner)
  • West 4th and Nuece (SW corner)
  • West 9th and Guadalupe St (SE corner)
  • W. 12th St. and Blanco St (SE corner)
  • W. 12th St. and Rio Grande St (NW corner)
  • W. 15th St. and San Antonio St (SW corner)
  • W. 22nd St. and Nueces St (SW corner)
  • W. 41st St. and Speedway St (SW corner)
  • Zilker Park (used for Zilker Park Christmas Tree)*
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and Chicon St (SE corner)
  • E. 13th St. and Coleto St (NE corner)
  • Pennsylvania Ave. and Leona St (NE corner)
  • E. 11th St. and Trinity St (SE corner)
  • E. 11th St. and Lydia St (SW corner)
  • E. Cesar Chavez and Trinity St. (SW corner)
  • Canterbury St. and Lynn St. (NE corner)

* This tower was removed from Emma Long Metropolitan Park and replaced the replica tower that was being used for the Zilker Park Christmas Tree.

Towers that have been removed...
  • East 1st St. and Waller St.
  • East 6th St. and Medina St.
  • E. 14th St. and Sabine St
  • E. 14th St. and Sabine St (SW corner)
  • Hawthorne (which later became either E. 20th or E. 21st) and Longfellow.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. (was 19th St.) and Lavaca St.
  • E. 16th St. and Brazos St.
  • E. 2nd St. and Neches St. (Convention Center)
  • W. 6th St. and Westlynn St
  • Dean Keeton St. (was 26th St.) and Whitis Ave.
  • E. 5th St. and Brazos St. (moved to Leland St. and East Side Dr.)
  • 29th St. and Lamar Blvd.
  • W. 6th St. and Lamar Blvd.
  • City Park renamed to Emma Long Metropolitan Park (moved to Zilker Park)
  • North end of Granite Dam (near power station and Ben Hur dock)

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