In the Austin of the 1890's many areas were underdeveloped, hilly,
and unpaved. This presented a problem when it came to lighting the
streets. In place of normal street lights the City of Austin opted
for 31 towers to provide artificial light to the rapidly growing city.
Such light towers were already a common form of lighting in many U.S.
cities in the late 19th century. The Austin light towers, erected in 1894-1895 by
the Fort Wayne Electric Company of Indiana, were approximately 165 feet
tall, weighed about 5,000 pounds and used a series of guy wires to keep
them vertical. Over the years many of the original 31 towers were lost
to construction, errant vehicles and other unfortunate circumstances.
Today just 17 of the towers remain standing in Austin. These 17 towers
are the last surviving examples of the once popular tower lighting system
commonly used throughout the country. They are now designated as official
state archeological landmarks and are listed in the National Register of
When the first moonlight towers were constructed residents feared
that the lights would cause havoc with the forces of nature. They
feared that the artificial light would cause their crops to grow 24
hours a day and that egg-laying hens would be driven to lay eggs 24
hours a day. Other than reports of few confused roosters who reportedly "never
knew when to stop crowing" the lights produced no negative side effects.
However, the towers were by no means trouble-free. Only weeks after
the the towers began operating a workman, Gilbert Searight, fell to
his death from the top of the tower at 9th and Guadalupe. At least
one tower collapsed soon after it was erected. Despite these troubles
and the towers themselves sometimes being referred to as "ugly". The
glowing light they produced, commonly called "artificial moonlight"
was reportedly quite beautiful.
The "artificial moonlight" was originally prduced by a then relatively new device
called a carbon arc lamp. These original carbon arc lamps illuminated
a circle approximately 3,000 feet in diameter with a blue-white light.
The light was intended
to be bright enough that you could read an ordinary pocket watch on
midnight of even the darkest of nights. The city electric department employed
one person whose sole responsibility was to maintain the carbon arc
lamps and light the towers each day. In 1923, the city replaced the
carbon arc lamps with incandescent bulbs and switches were installed
at the base of each tower. During World War II, the need to quickly
black out the city dictated that the switches be replaced with one
central switch. The towers now use 6,400-watt mercury vapor bulbs
and the illumination is fully automated.
In 1990-91 the city refurbished the tower located at South First and
Monroe. The construction of the new Austin Convention Center forced
the relocation of one tower to First (Cesar-Chavez) and Trinity. An
errant automobile damaged the tower at 22nd and Nueces forcing the
dismantling of the tower. These two towers were refurbished before
being put back up. In 1993 the city began a two-year long project
to restore the remaining 14 towers at a cost of $1.3 million.