Moonlight Towers are unlike street lights that we see today on almost every street corner, back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s they were common in smaller cities these electric light towers designed to cover a circle of 3,000 feet . The light towers provided lighting for a 4 square block area. Between 1894-95 there were 31 on of these towers installed in and around downtown Austin, of which 17 of the original towers remain and are functional. The Moonlight Towers are listed in the National Register of Historic Places and were designated as State Archaeological Landmarks.
Moonlight towers are lighting structures designed to illuminate large areas of a city at night.
The structures were popular in the late nineteenth century among smaller cities across the United States and Europe, when standard street-lighting systems — using smaller, shorter, and more numerous lamps — were impractically expensive. The towers were designed to illuminate more city area at once via electric lighting. Arc lamps were the most common method of illumination, though they were known for their exceptionally bright and harsh light.
As regular street lighting grew more popular, the prevalence of moonlight tower systems began to wane.
Moonlight towers in Austin, Texas
Austin, Texas is the only city in the world, known to still operate a system. The towers are 165 feet tall and have a fifteen foot foundation. This type of tower was manufactured in Indiana by Fort Wayne Electric Company and assembled onsite. In 1894, the City of Austin purchased 31 used lighting towers from Detroit. A single tower cast light from six carbon arc lamps, illuminating a 3000 foot (920 meters) radius circle brightly enough to read a watch.
When first installed, the towers were connected to their own electric generators at the Austin dam (near present day Tom Miller Dam). Over the years they were switched from their original carbon-arc lamps (which were exceedingly bright and time consuming to maintain) to incandescent lamps in the 1920’s, and mercury vapor lamps in the 1930’s. Mercury vapor lighting allowed the installation of a switch at each tower’s base. During World War II, a central switch was installed, allowing citywide blackouts in case of air raids.
In 1993 the city of Austin dismantled the towers and restored every bolt, turnbuckle and guy wire as part of a $1.3 million project, the completion of which was celebrated in 1995 with a city-wide festival.
Each tower weighs in at 2 tons. Most of the structure consists of a triangular metal lattice, commonly used for radio antenna supports today. The lattice sits on top of a single 15-foot pole and so must be secured by guy wires attached to each of the three corners of the lattice and strung outward away from the structure.
above is the Moonlight Tower in Zilker Park the lights are connected to the wooden post seen in the back.
Since 1965 the Moonlight Tower in Zilker Park has served as Austin’s Christmas Tree. The normal guy wires are supplemented by additional strands that contain over 3,300 lights that form a conical “tree” for the entire city. A favorite pastime of young and old alike is to spin under the tree while looking up at the lights, then trying to stand upright and fight off the resulting dizzying sensation.
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