Austin’s Moon Towers Illuminate City’s History

There wasn’t anything particularly cool about those big old light towers around downtown Austin until Matthew McConaughey’s character in “Dazed and Confused” came along and announced that there would be a party at the moon tower.

In the film, the towers provide an interesting backdrop to a high school kegger. In reality, you’re unlikely to find many high schoolers filling plastic cups with cheap beer near a moon tower.

The history of the moon towers reaches much farther back than the 1970s when Dazed and Confused is set.

The 150-foot towers went up in 1895. Seen as a way to deter rowdy behavior and crime, Austin bought 31 of the towers from Detroit, which had decided to take their towers down.

Elizabeth Garzone, a long-time downtown tour guide, said that Austin had very few lights in the late 1800s besides the kerosene lanterns that illuminated portions of Congress Avenue.

The new moon tower lights cast a 3,000 foot radius of artificial “moon” glow, she said. The lights were controversial at the time. People weren’t sure if plants would know when to stop growing, she joked.

But the lights were undoubtedly welcomed by some.

Bright Lights Provided Sense of Safety

The lights were installed about a decade after one of the United States’ first documented serial killers terrorized women in Austin. The killer, known as the Servant Girl Annihilator, had killed seven women and injured several others over the course of a year. (Stay tuned for a blog about the serial killer next week.)

He was never caught, although the killings abruptly stopped in 1885, about a year after they began.

The lights may have provided comfort to some Austinites. But those who had to maintain the towers likely had other feelings.

“Originally, they were arc carbon lighting, meaning that every morning and every night someone had to climb up there to turn it on and off,” she said, looking up at the tower on the corner of Guadalupe and West 9th streets. “Yeah, there were a few deaths.”

Arc carbon lighting just maintains a constant spark between two carbon rods. Their lighting was intensely bright.

After World War II, the city switched to mercury vapor systems that could be easily turned on and off, Garzone said.

Only 16 of the original 31 towers remain, and they have metal-halide bulbs. Though the towers are still lit at night, they are now less noticeable because of all the ambient light downtown.

All the towers are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. See a Google Map of them here.