Moonlight Towers: A Brief History

There are seventeen left.  Which is remarkable, really, given that this is seventeen more than there are in the rest of the world.  That moonlight towers still grace Austin's streets reflects the city's slow pace of development in the first half of the twentieth century and a renewed dedication to historical preservation in the second.

 

What are they?  Nineteenth century American cities wishing to exploit the new miracle of electricity to light city streets had two options: placing dozens, if not hundreds of small light poles along every street or mounting lights atop tall towers to illuminate large swaths of the city.  In the 1890's Austin city leaders opted for the towers.

 

Native New Yorker John McDonald won Austin's 1889 mayoral election on the strength of his promise to oversee construction of a dam across the Colorado River.  This dam would not only provide city residents with a consistent water supply, it would serve to generate the huge amounts of electricity necessary for home and industrial use. Power from the dam would also allow the city to phase out the dim gas street lights then in use in favor of much brighter electric lamps.

 

When Edward O'Beirne of the Fort Wayne Electric Company presented a plan to install 31 towers supporting six carbon arc lamps each, Austin's city council voted to award him the contract to light city streets.  Hyde Park developer Monroe Shipe persuaded the council to install the first tower in his new subdivision in 1894.  Within a year the remaining 30 towers were ready and on May 3, 1895 the city celebrated  its first night of "artificial moonlight."

 

Hurricanes, tornados, and errant utility trucks have taken their toll over the years, but seventeen of the original 31 towers survive as testaments to the progressive policies of Mayor McDonald.  Historical designation in the 1970's and a complete restoration in the 1990's helped insure that city residents will enjoy these iconic artifacts for decades to come.  No other city in the world can boast of such towers.  They are graceful, they are unique, they are the Last of the Moonlight Towers.

The Zilker Park tree viewed against the city skyline

The Zilker Park Christmas tree is an original moonlight tower strung with lights

A moonlight tower in front of the Texas capitol

Two Austin icons: the Texas state capitol and a moonlight tower

A moonlight tower with the moon in the background

Nineteenth century Austin residents marveled at the continual "artificial moonlihgt" provided by the towers

The moonilght tower in Zilker Park decorated for Christmas

Austin Energy has provided a tower tree in Zilker Park since 1967 and has used an original moonlight tower since the 1990's

Electric light tower in San Jose, California

Early moonlight towers, like this one in San Jose, Calfornia, carried a large footprint spanning the width of the street

Austin moonlight tower, showing the support pole

Austin's towers are supported by a single pole, giving them a small footprint

Each moonlight tower is also supported by guy wires attached at three different levels.

Each tower is also supported by guy wires attached at three different levels

There are six lamps at the top of each tower

There are six lamps at the top of each tower -  The 1990's restoration brought back their original 19th century appearance

Old postcard of Wooldridge Park with a moonlight tower in the background

Early 20th century postcard showing a moonlight tower in the background

Elgin Illinois with an electric light tower in the backgroun

Street view of Elgin, Illinois with a pyramidal electric light tower in the distance

Moontower Co-op logo

The towers have inspired the names of multiple Austin businesses  

Tretn Turner and the Moontowers

Austinite Trent Turner looked to the towers when naming his band

Texas General Land Office history symposium

The Texas General Land Office incorporated the moonlight towers in the design of this announcement of its annual history symposium

From an 1887 edition of "The Electical World"

This image of an electrical tower in Indianapolis is from an 1887 edition of "Electrical World"

Fort Wayne Electric Works, Fort Wayne Indiana

Austin purchases its towers from Fort Wayne Electric Works in Fort Wayne, Indiana

Electric light tower in San Jose, California

Another view of an electric light tower in San Jose, California

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San Jose, California