In 1894, Austin bought moonlight in the form of towers. Nowadays, these monolithic lamps are super impractical, but in 1895 they were a revelation. Moonlight towers, also referred to as moon towers, liberated citizens from the constraints of nighttime and heralded Austin as “The Coming Great Manufacturer of the South.”
Many speculated these lights would eliminate the need for police entirely. The carbon-arc bulbs were so bright, in fact, that locals worried about potential crop overgrowth and wore umbrellas at night to protect their skin.
The moonlight towers did not eliminate crime, nor did they cause vegetable hysteria. What they did was stir up a frothing pot of controversy. A small list of fatalities accumulated, as workers and ambitious young men climbed up and fell to the ground.
One tower in particular is said to be cursed: Guadalupe and West 9th. Several deaths occurred at this location, including one in a string of murders associated with the Servant Girl Annihilator.
The Servant Girl Annihilator was one of the earliest known serial killers in the nation. He was never found. Many believe the unidentified assassin fled to London and became Jack the Ripper. This is very likely untrue. However, the bubbling cauldron of local mythology often finds the moon towers and Servant Girl Annihilator story in close association. Some credit the erection of these 165-foot-high beacons for scaring him off.
In truth, the moonlight towers can be chalked up to technological progress. In the late 19th century, cities all over the United States and Europe began to dabble in outdoor lighting. The hilly terrain of Austin made smaller street lamps a financial impossibility. Thus, 31 beloved moonlight towers came to be.
In 2018, there are 15 left. In the entire world. All of them here in Austin. Forty years ago, in 1976, all were inducted into the National Register of Historic Places. And in 1995, the towers were carefully restored with original components, then celebrated in a citywide festival.
Though now physically dwarfed by hotels and sky rises, the moon towers of Austin are unsurpassed in our hearts.
Here’s a look into their legacy:
Alright, Alright, Alright
The excitement around the restoration of the moonlight towers was aided by Richard Linklater’s 1993 cult classic “Dazed and Confused.” Warning: don’t try to find Linklater’s moon tower. It no longer exists. The infamous “Party at the Moon tower!” happened around a fictional set piece bearing little resemblance to the real thing.
Zilker Park Holiday Tree
There are few annual traditions as anticipated as Trail of Lights and the Zilker Park Holiday Tree. Both have been in Austin’s back pocket of sensational events since 1967. Music, food, fun, and millions of lights. Plus, the trunk of the Zilker Tree is one of Austin’s remaining moonlight towers.
➡ Keep reading: Guide to Austin’s Zilker Park for Every Season of the Year
Moontower Comedy Festival
A far newer form of fun, Moontower Comedy Festival has been busting guts since 2012. This year’s headliner comedians include Mike Birbiglia (twice), Weird Al Yankovich, and Tiffany Haddish (already sold out!). I recently read Haddish’s biography, “The Last Black Unicorn,” and was seen snorting in a café as a result.
Party at this moon tower! Located in Way South Awesome, Moontower Saloon is a hit in the bar and music scene. In the seven years since its inception, Moontower Saloon has grown from three acres of chill to 11 acres of party. Music – beach volleyball – fire pits – food truck – open space to dance – rolling set of great local bands. But I can’t not mention my favorite element: the stage is lit through the skin of a bass drum. Two thumbs way up.
10212 Manchaca Road – Website
The Last of the Moonlight Towers
If you want to hear about the guy who “climbed every moon tower in Austin,” or from a woman who was around when the lights were still carbon-arc, then check out the documentary “The Last of the Moonlight Towers.” It’s playing twice at AFS Cinema on May 12, 2018, and has other showings around town from time to time.
The film by locals Ray Spivey and Jeffrey Kerr is a beautiful tribute to this notable part of Austin’s history, full of anecdotes and stunning visuals.
Current and Removed Moonlight Towers
If you’re interested, here’s the list of the remaining 15 Austin moonlight towers. Go see them while you can.
- Leland Street and Eastside Drive (NE corner)
- Monroe Street and S. 1st Street (SW corner)
- W. 9th and Guadalupe Street (SE corner)
- W. 12th Street and Blanco Street (SE corner)
- W. 12th Street and Rio Grande Street (NW corner)
- W. 15th Street and San Antonio Street (SW corner)
- W. 22nd Street and Nueces Street (SW corner)
- W. 41st Street and Speedway Street (SW corner)
- Zilker Park (used for Zilker Park Holiday Tree)
- Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Chicon Street (SE corner)
- E. 13th Street and Coleto Street (NE corner)
- Pennsylvania Avenue and Leona Street (NE corner)
- E. 11th Street and Trinity Street (SE corner)
- E. 11th Street and Lydia Street (SW corner)
- Canterbury Street and Lynn Street (NE corner)
These 17 moonlight towers have been removed:
- E. 1st Street and Waller Street
- E. 6th St. and Medina Street
- E. 14th Street and Sabine Street
- E. 14th Street and Sabine Street (SW corner)
- Hawthorne (became either E. 20th or E. 21st) and Longfellow
- Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (formerly called 19th Street) and Lavaca Street
- E. 16th Street and Brazos Street
- E. 2nd Street and Neches Street (Austin Convention Center)
- W. 6th Street and Westlynn Street
- Dean Keeton Street (formerly called 26th Street) and Whitis Avenue
- E. 5th St. and Brazos Street (moved to Leland Street and East Side Drive)
- 29th Street and Lamar Boulevard
- W. 6th Street and Lamar Boulevard
- City Park, renamed Emma Long Metropolitan Park (moved to Zilker Park)
- North end of Granite Dam (near power station and Ben Hur dock)
- Cesar Chavez and Trinity Street (SW corner)
- West 4th and Nueces (SW corner)
It’s unusual for a collection of light towers to be so central to the identity of a place. Sounds like Austin.
@theAustinot wants to know:
Do you have any anecdotes or historical information to share about Austin’s moonlight towers?
Jackson Prince minored in English in college and is working hard to prove its worth. When not writing, he’s pouring drinks and melting hearts.
The original version of this article was published Nov. 20, 2014.
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