Does the History of Austin’s Moonlight Towers make them the city’s most unique landmark?

The first time I visited Austin, before I learned about crazy Sixth Street, or all the festivals, or even friggin’ Leslie — the very *first* thing anyone ever said to me was, “You don’t look like you know where you’re going.” And that was true. But the *second* thing anyone ever said to me was, “Have you heard about the moonlight towers?”

To steal a question from Kurt Vonnegut: “What is it, what could it possibly be” about the Austin Moonlight Towers that brings Austinites such unbridled fascination and joy?

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Early  Image of an Austin Moonlight Tower

Then, two weeks ago happened. I wrote a piece for the site on Austin’s Servant Girl Annihilator, and bucket loads of feedback poured in about the Serial Killer being the origin of the Moonlight Towers. Everybody loves these things. So this week, because I can’t help myself, its time to hop in the way-back machine and take a look at what these towers are all about.

In 1894, the city of Austin bought 31 moonlight towers from Michigan and placed them all around the city. The towers were in part a response to the multiple murders committed by an unidentified serial killer, known only as the “Servant Girl Annihilator,” a few years earlier. They were also purchased because they were a relatively inexpensive and modern proposition in the 1890s — a luxury that many major metropolitan areas in the country and around the world utilized at the time. The original moonlight towers were bright enough that, if you set a newspaper down on an otherwise unlit street, you could read the headlines simply from the light of the towers.

This exceptionally intense light was a new prospect for not only just Austinites, but everyone. Electricity was still in its infancy, and most Americans still lived by sunlight and candlelight. The newness of that brightness brought about several myths, some of which still exist today. Alas, chickens did not gobble (or whatever chickens do) all night long, crops did not grow 24-hours per day, and the towers did not cause a sudden, mass exodus of bats.

The prospect of the moonlight towers being a viable way to light the city was short-lived, however. By the 1920s, major renovations already were taking place to alter the towers powering system, and switching to a different lighting system. This allowed the city to more easily control the brightness of the towers and effectively made them 165 foot tall lamps. In the 1940s, a central switch was installed in the moonlight tower system, allowing Austin to shut off all of the towers with a single action. It’s purpose? To safeguard the city in the event of air raids during World War II. By then, street lights were so prominent that the moon towers were in some ways rendered obsolete.

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Image of the first erected Austin Moonlight Tower, in today’s Hyde Park area. Credit: Austin History Center

Today, 17 of the original 31 moonlight towers still exist, mostly as a novelty.  Two of those 17, however, have been moved from their original location in order to make way for downtown construction. Admittedly, there is some worry about the extinction of the towers heading into the future. As downtown Austin continues to grow, the space downtown comes at a much higher premium and, like any historical artifact, rumblings will begin about how long the towers should remain standing considering they are not necessarily needed any longer. To Austin’s credit, they have done an admirable job in protecting the towers as a historical treasure to date, and the tower’s addition to the National Registry of Historic Places in the 1970s gives them an extra layer of protection.

The moonlight towers existed before paved roads existed. Credit: Corbis Images

While other cities still have the physical towers, Austin is the only city in the world — that’s right, people  – the only one, who has a functioning system of moonlight towers. As a result they may be Austin’s most unique attribute. The next time you’re out-and-about, take a swing by one of the Austin moonlight towers and snap a photo. In a few decades they may not be here and, at least you’ll be safe from the Servant Girl Annihilator, in case he’s still out there.

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Where you can visit still-standing moonlight towers. Credit: Travelpod

Would you be okay with removing moonlight towers for downtown construction?

Have you ever heard a crazy moonlight tower myth?

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About Matthew Stewart

Variable nerd, aspiring professional hockey goalie, politically interested, loves the "Golden Oldies", player of racquetball, steak connoisseur

6 thoughts on “Does the History of Austin’s Moonlight Towers make them the city’s most unique landmark?

  1. Mark

    Great post with some interesting history! My only experience with this part of Austin goes back to the 90′s when I was living there and attended a concert called “MoonTower Madness”. What an awesome lineup it was with the Reverand Horton Heat & Los Lobos…too bad I wasn’t interested in the history at the time…what do you expect from a “wet-behind-the-ears” college student with just a fixation on music! Makes me miss Austin that much more! Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • Matthew Stewart

      Mark,

      Thanks for reading and for the comment! Austin has so many little quirks that make it such a unique city. When we moved here, you didn’t need to go far or try hard to get a grasp on Austin’s identity as a place. The moon towers are definitely a part of that.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the piece!

      - M

      Reply
  2. Pingback: Why Moonlight Towers? | Moontower ATX Tees

  3. Tim Thornton, Realtor

    Good stuff, Mark. I don’t know if the Towers are the most unique landmark in the city or not, but they are one wonderful bit of history and lore, including all the stories and mystery that come with! One of the many things that makes Austin–well, Austin. thanks. tT

    Reply
  4. Austin Fay

    WELL I HEARD that the towers’ inception were part of new-fangled scientfic theories about people and the importance of sleep cycles. In the late nineteenth century City Council members erected them on the grounds that it would mimic moonlight and improve the sleep cycles – therefore improving the quality of life – of the citizens of Austin. Although there was some resistance to the bad science surrounding their construction from farmers surrounding Austin. Some fearing that the moonlight would confuse their crops lunar cycles and make them grow out of control.

    So, that just means there’s a long tradition of hippies believing in bad science here in Austin.

    Reply

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