In this episode of Discover Austin, I shed light on Austin’s first source of light after dark, the Moonlight Towers. If you prefer to read about our Moonlight Towers, the video transcript can be found below the video. You’ll also find a list of locations where you can find the 15 remaining Moonlight Towers.
Greetings, I’m Craig Smyser. This is one of the last remaining Moonlight Towers in the world. On this episode of Discover Austin, we’re going to explore this relic of the past.
At first glance, this might look like a cell phone tower. But it’s actually a Moonlight Tower that has been standing here since the 1890s. Back then, the population of Austin was around 15,000, and the only light available after sunset was provided by the moon. In the early 1880s, moonlight towers started to appear in numerous cities across the United States as a way to illuminate the deep darkness of the night. In 1894, Austin bought 31 second-hand towers from the city of Detroit and erected them across town. The lights were extremely bright, even by our current day standards. While a gas lamp, a common streetlight at the time, gave off about 15 candles worth of light, the moonlight towers gave off several thousand candles worth. Because these lights are so bright, they were set up very high. In fact, Austin’s moonlight towers stand at 165 feet tall. Originally, there were six carbon arc lights at the top of each tower. For those who are a bit rusty on late 19th century technology, let me explain. If you take two rods of carbon, set them apart from each other, and send electricity through them, the electricity will arc across the gap between the rods creating a very bright light. Not only are carbon arc lights extremely bright, but they burn out very quickly. As a result, the moonlight towers required daily changing of the carbon electrodes which meant someone had to hop onto the little platform inside the tower and use the pulley system to ride up to the top. Obviously, this was very labor intensive. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Austin switched over to incandescent lightbulbs. But while Austin was updating their lighting in the towers, every other town that had them simply tore the towers down and replaced them with regular streetlights which, of course, by this time had experienced much technical innovation. Even as Austin updated its street lighting in the coming decades, the city left the towers up to avoid the cost of dismantling them. As the years passed, residents grew fond of the moonlight towers, their historic nature, and that they are the only ones left in the world. In fact, in 1976, the moonlight towers were added to the National Registry of Historic Places. In the mid-1990s, the city invested over $1 million to restore the 15 towers that still stand around town.
I invite you to take an evening stroll to one of the moonlight towers to enjoy a sight that can only be seen in Austin. I’m Craig Smyser. Thanks for joining me for this episode of Discover Austin.
The locations of the 15 remaining towers are as follows: