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Austin's Famous Moontowers

Keeping the streets brightly lit and safe, 1890’s style.
Moon Tower One of the Austin Moon Towers. This one is about a block or so from the capitol building.

If you’ve ever looked up while stumbling out of a bar in Austin, (maybe at SXSW?) at night it’s possible you’ve seen a 150+ foot tower with lights on it that’s nowhere near a baseball field. Congratulations! You’ve seen one of Austin’s famous moonlight towers. Also you can still focus your eyes, so double congratulations.

Purchased second hand from Detroit in 1894, 31 of the 165 foot towers were placed around Austin, and 15 are still standing, and 6 are even in their original location. They were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, which seems like it’s going to need some sort of footnote that it’s actually 15 historic places, right?

The towers lit up a circle 1500 feet across, and caused quite a fuss when they were first installed. Some folks were sure it was going to cause the crops and grass to grow at night and become unwieldy, or that it would confuse chickens into laying more eggs or crowing at all hours. The city survived the transition to lit streets just fine, and axes were not needed to mow the lawn or harvest beans.

The lights were originally carbon arc lamps that had a filament that had to be changed daily. I’m hoping there was more than one guy hired to do this job, since this was in 1895 and the guy had to drive the horse and cart to each one, (31 in all) and then ride up the tiny, most likely terrifying, hand operated elevator to the top. Eventually they switched to incandescent in the 1920’s, and then to mercury vapor in the 1930’s, and then the information runs dry. It’s hard to imagine that they can get parts for mercury vapor lamps, I imagine the name doesn’t sound very green to the city that invented Whole Foods.

Austin wasn’t the only place that used Moonlight Towers, New Orleans had a couple, mainly at in the port, as it was helpful for the loading and unloading of ships at night. There was also one installed at Canal and Carondelet in the French Quarter. San Jose, California had one as well, a whopping 237 foot specimen purchased in 1881, that made San Jose the only city to be lit by electric light west of the Rockies. There’s a half sized replica on display at the San Jose Historical Museum, if you’re in the area.

Moon Tower The Moontowers provided huge amounts of light for the city of Austin. This shows the hand cranked "elevator" that was used to go up and service the bulbs.

The towers have 2 other claims to fame, one is a movie, and the other features a serial killer with possibly the best name ever. But first the movie.

"This place used to be off limits, man, ‘cause some drunk freshman fell off. He went right down the middle, smacking his head on every beam, man. I hear it doesn’t hurt after the first couple though. Autopsy said he had one beer, how many did you have?" – Slater, Dazed and Confused

Actually he was 11, it was 1930, it was the last day of school and it was a dare, and when he woke up from the coma with 187 stitches he was fine, with not even a broken bone. But yes, the moon tower in Zilker park was where they filmed the keg party in Dazed and Confused, which is most of the movie, if I recall correctly. Austin turns that tower, with the help of 3000 lights, into a giant Christmas tree every year, which must look awesome.

So the serial killer. He was christened The Servant Girl Annihilator. Catchy name, am I right? The name was coined by O. Henry in a letter to a friend, and it stuck, though it didn’t get used much at the time. Some say he’s actually Jack the Ripper, with the theory being that he was a traveling English cotton merchant, or a Texas cowboy traveling around the world with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Or it was a voodoo thing. Or that he was a Southeast Asian cook who skipped town, but honestly though, nobody knows. What they do know is that from 1884 to 1885 somebody was on a killing spree in Austin. The city was pretty freaked out, and rightly so, Jack the Ripper never killed 3 people in one night, nor did he go after sleeping families.(Or servant girls for that matter.) In all 8 people were killed, and another 8 seriously injured. Just to underscore the lawlessness of the West in the 1880’s, the police rounded up 400 possible suspects over the course of the year. This was back when Austin had a population of 17,000.

The legend is that the Moonlight Towers were installed to calm the populace in the midst of a killing spree, but the towers weren’t purchased for another 10 years. But it’s definitely a better story than the real one, which is, most likely, that regular evenly spaced light poles that big cities had at the time were just really, really expensive.

If you want to spot one of the remaining towers, here are the locations.

  • Monroe/South 1st
  • Leland/Eastside
  • Canterbury/Lynn
  • East 11th/Lydia
  • Pennsylvania/Leona
  • East 13th/Coleto
  • MLK/Chicon
  • West 12th/Blanco
  • West 12th/Rio Grande
  • West 15th/San Antonio
  • West 41st/Speedway
  • East 11th/Trinity
  • West 9th/Guadalupe
  • Zilker Park