These unassuming landmarks shed a rare light on Austin's past.
Austin's Moonlight Towers: An Old-Fashioned Ambiance
Photos by Caleb Kerr
It’s hard to imagine a time when Austin wasn’t filled with bright lights, live music and the distinctive atmosphere that sets it apart from any other city in the US. And yet—unbeknownst to most visitors and locals—Austin has a longstanding legacy when it comes to harboring its unique brand of energy.
In fact, nestled within the cosmopolitan glow of present day Austin, there are traces of an antiquated, yet revolutionary technology that helped bring the city into the modern age—or at least into the 20th Century. In 1894, the City of Austin purchased and installed its first municipal electrical lighting system consisting of 31 light towers spread throughout what was then the greater metropolitan area. Known simply as “Moonlight Towers,” many of these freestanding structures still illuminate downtown Austin over 120 years later.
It goes without saying that these are not your ordinary streetlights. At their introduction in the early 1890’s, Moonlight Towers were at the cutting edge of electrical engineering that harnessed the power of arc lighting. This newly discovered technology far surpassed the lighting power of the other options available at the time—namely candles, oil lamps, and open flame gas lights that each had notable downsides and limitations.
By contrast, arc lights were extremely energy efficient as they could easily illuminate a 1,500 foot radius with a brilliant light that was well suited to downtown areas. This light was so powerful that the arc bulbs were situated roughly 160 ft. in the air atop single iron pedestals that weighed in around 5,000 tons. It was this impressive display of light at such a high altitude that gave Moonlight Towers their name.
Of the 31 Moonlight Towers that were originally erected in Austin, 17 stand throughout the city today—all of which are still functioning. Granted, they have since been retrofitted with modern bulbs, but the ambiance is nonetheless the same. And in some cases the ambiance may be even better, such as the decorative annual light displays that adorn the Moonlight Tower replica in Zilker Park throughout the winter season.
Yet beyond local lore and select scenes from Dazed and Confused, relatively few people know of or even recognize Austin’s Moonlight Towers despite their formative role in shaping the city’s culture since the 1890’s. Of course part of this stems from Austin’s growing skyline and the abundance of other light sources that comes with it. However, another reason that these towers often go unnoticed stems from the fact that they are extremely rare—so much so that they don’t even register for most people. Austin is now the only city in the world where you can find Moonlight Towers, even though they were once ubiquitous across America and Europe.
So the next time you’re in Austin, take a second to look upward to catch a glimpse of one of these rare and long-standing relics that helped to build the city we know and love. If however, you want to seek them out directly, you can find the locations of all 17 Moonlight Towers here. And now is the perfect time to do it, as Austin is set to begin a three- to six-year, $2.2 million dollar historical restoration project to perform maintenance on these historic Moonlight Towers throughout the city.