Austin is the only city in the country that has “moonlight towers.” In 1894, 31 arc light towers (165 feet tall) were purchased by the city of Austin from the city of Detroit. Seventeen towers still remain, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
By 1955, Austin was called “the moonlight city” because of these moonlight towers.
Wikipedia: Moonlight tower
Moonlight towers are lighting structures designed to illuminate large areas of a city at night.
The structures were popular in the late nineteenth century among smaller cities across the United States and Europe, when standard street-lighting systems — using smaller, shorter, and more numerous lamps — were impractically expensive. The towers were designed to illuminate more city area at once via electric lighting. Arc lamps were the most common method of illumination, though they were known for their exceptionally bright and harsh light.
As regular street lighting grew more popular, the prevalence of moonlight tower systems began to wane.
Moonlight towers in Austin, Texas
Austin, Texas is the only city in the world known to still operate a system. The towers are 165 feet tall and have a fifteen foot foundation. This type of tower was manufactured in Indiana by Fort Wayne Electric Company and assembled onsite. In 1894, the City of Austin purchased 31 used lighting towers from Detroit. A single tower cast light from six carbon arc lamps, illuminating a 1500 foot (460 metres) radius circle brightly enough to read a watch.
When first installed, the towers were connected to their own electric generators at the Austin dam (near present day Tom Miller Dam). Over the years they were switched from their original carbon-arc lamps (which were exceedingly bright and time consuming to maintain) to incandescent lamps in the 1920s, and mercury vapor lamps in the 1930s. Mercury vapor lighting allowed the installation of a switch at each tower’s base. During World War II, a central switch was installed, allowing citywide blackouts in case of air raids.
In 1993 the city of Austin dismantled the towers and restored every bolt, turnbuckle and guy wire as part of a $1.3 million project, the completion of which was celebrated in 1995 with a city-wide festival. The 17 remaining towers were listed in the National Register of Historic Places on July 12, 1976. The City of Austin has ordinances in place to protect the towers from demolition, however since 2004 two of the remaining 17 towers have been removed from their original locations. The towers at 4th & Nueces and 1st & Trinity have been removed due to new construction. It is unclear whether the towers will be replaced, or erected elsewhere.
Austin’s Moonlight Towers
Over 100 years and still burning bright
By Jacci Howard Bear, About.com
In 1894 Austin purchased 31 used lighting towers from the City of Detroit. At that time these types of light towers were common in US cities to illuminate urban areas in place of streetlights. A single tower cast a bright light from its six carbon arc lamps, illuminating a 3000 feet circle. Mercury vapor lamps are now in use in these 165 foot triangular cast-and wrought-iron structures.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Austin is the only US city that still retains and uses a portion of this once popular tower lighting system. Seventeen of the original 31 towers, although moved from time to time to allow for city growth and street widening, are still in use.
Austin’s Moonlight Towers
where to find the towers
Nueces and W. 4th
Guadalupe and W. 9th
Blanco and W. 12th
Rio Grande and W. 12th
San Antonio and W. 15th
Nueces and W. 22nd
Speedway and W. 41st
Lydia and E. 1st (Cesar Chavez)
Trinity and E. 1st (Cesar Chavez)
Trinity and E. 11th
Coleto and E. 13th
Chicon and E. 19th (MLK)
Leona and Pennsylvania
Eastside Drive and Leland
South 1st and W. Monroe
Canterbury and W. Lynn
15 November 1955, Newark (OH) Advocate, “Powerful Candle on Banks of Wabash Ushered in Modern Street Lights Era,” pg. 3, cols. 4-6:
However, as outdoor electric streetlighting spread and the large central light was abandoned in favor of forerunners of the present boulevard lighting systems, only one city—Austin,Texas—continues today to follow Wabash’s early example. The capital of the Lone Star state today enjoys a worldwide reputation as “the moonlight city.”
It is no tall tale of Texas that at Austin they really “turn on the moonlight” at dusk every evening. From the tops of 27 cast iron towers, scattered throughout the city, a misty silver glow shines through oak leaves onto roof tops.
System Is Unique
Six mercury vapor lamps producing a total of 1,600 candlepower are mounted on each tower standing 165 feet high. They have been moved from time to time as the city has spread, and now are augmented by conventional street lights. Each is sufficient to light a four-block area.
According to George Seagert of the chamber of commerce, Austin now is the only city in the world with such a lighting system.
Maintenance crews use small elevators built into the middle of the shaft or a ladder along the side to reach the lamps. Set in concrete and anchored by guy wires, only one tower has blown over in more than a half century.
There is a link between Austin’s “moonlight towers” and the pioneer system that Wabash, Ind., is celebrating this year. Lacking funds for streetlighting in 1894, Austin traded a narrow gauge railroad valued at $50,000 and used to haul granite for building the city’s first dam to an Indiana electric firm for the 32 towers it had built to emulate the Wabash lights.
28 April 1970, New York (NY) Times, “Austin Uses Arc Lights,” pg. 6:
AUSTIN, Tex. (AP)—An official state marker commemorating the city’s 27 “artificial moonlight” towers—carbon arc street lights—has been dedicated here.
22 April 1976, Lebanon (PA) Daily News, “Moonlight City,” pg. 5, col. 4:
AUSTIN, Tex.—Austin is bathed in artificial moonlight every night. The light comes from 27 towers, each 165 feet high, whose mercury-vapor lamps cast a soft blue light. In 1885 (sic) there were 35 such towers, equipped with arc lights. Detroit was the only other city to use this type of street lighting.
7 October 1979, New York (NY) Times, “Austin’s Artificial Moonlight Towers Cast Shadows,” pg. 75:
AUSTIN, Tex., Oct. 6 (AP)—Since May 6, 1895, lights on the tops of a series of towers have provided a warm, moonlight-like glow over Austin. Romantics say the towers are historic. The man who has to keep the lights working on the 165-foot structures is not so sentimental.
“If I had my way,” Marshall Reed said, “we’d be taking them all down.”
Though the 21 towers have a dedicated following, even such backers as Betty Baker, an employee at the City Planning Department, acknowledge that economics does not support their continued existence. “It’s almost like motherhood,” she said. “You have to support them.”
In the 1890’s, Austin traded an old railroad with Fort Wayne, Ind., for the wrought- and cast-iron towers. They originally supported carbon arc lights that were nightly lighted by hand by city workers who would crank their way to the tops on hand-powered elevators. Mercury vapor lights were installed in 1936.
Originally there were 31 towers. The number has dwindled as a result, among other things, of bad weather and bus drivers who miscalculated turns.