Curious about how folks lit Austin streets before the advent of the modern day streetlight? Then take a look at one of the seventeen surviving “Moonlight Towers” around town. Each of these illumination towers, built between 1894 and 1895 by the Fort Wayne Electric Company, are constructed of a triangular-shaped cast and wrought iron framework and topped with a cluster of six lamps designed to shower a “moon-like” glow upon everything within a 3,000-foot diameter circle below. The original lamps were carbon arc, requiring workmen to light or extinguish (depending on the time of day) two pieces of carbon that produced the illumination. The workmen accessed the clusters twice daily via a small, hand-operated elevator that ran up the center of each tower’s framework. Eventually, incandescent lighting and then mercury vapor lamps replaced the carbon, allowing for the installation of an on/off switch at the base of each tower. Originally, 31 of the 165-foot tall towers were built, scattered throughout the late 19th and early 20th century Austin streets where residents appreciated the celestial glow. Local farm roosters, however, did not. Remarkably, the city continues the operation of 15 of these National Register and State Antiquities landmarks. Today, tower illumination is fully automated. Look for them on street corners in downtown and East Austin, or if you’re in town during December, the tower in Zilker Park is transformed into a fabulous Christmas tree.
Why use many streetlights when one will do?
UK influencer Tom Scott contacted the Texas Historical Commission in fall 2023 to learn more about Austin's moonlight towers. He shares what he learned in the video below, which features Greg Smith, Texas program coordinator for the National Register of Historic Places.