The Historic Moonlight Towers In Austin

Most visitors to Austin notice the unusual streetlights strategically located throughout the city known as the moonlight towers, but most are not aware of the history of the towers. Probably the most well known of the moonlight towers is the one in Zilker Park which is used every year to represent a huge Christmas tree, when it is encircled with multi-colored lights and can be seen from miles away.

There are actually 17 moonlight towers in and around Austin, including the Zilker tower, and these lights have been in use since the late 1800s, when Austin purchased the lights from the city of Detroit. In 1894, 31 used mercury vapor lamps were installed throughout Austin, and at the time, these types of lights were used in many cities across the country, but Austin is the only city still using them today.

The lamps, which are perched atop wrought iron posts, give off a distinctive pinkish-yellow light, and the lamps illuminate a 3000 foot circle of ground. Even thought the lights appear to be one large lamp, they are actually made up of 6 carbon arc lamps, and the lamp poles are actually 165 feet triangular posts made of cast and wrought iron.

The 100 year anniversary of the moonlight towers was celebrated in Zilker Park in 1995, and some of those who attended the anniversary event still have the custom made shirts which were available for purchase at the event, with an original artist’s rendition of the lamps on the front and back of the shirts, including the date of the commemoration of the lights. These shirts are considered collector’s items now, and the lamps themselves are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Most of the moonlight towers are situated in or around the older residential neighborhoods which encircle the downtown area, such as Clarksville, Speedway, Bouldin Creek, and the Zilker Park neighborhoods, but some are actually located in the downtown area itself, such as the one that is located at Guadalupe Street and West 9th. During the time of the 100 year anniversary of the lights, all of them were taken down and restored one at a time and then replaced in their original location, and even though there were originally 31 lamps, there are now only 17 in operation.

Each moonlight tower is held up by a fifteen foot pedestal which is encircled with guy wires and a network of cables, and the lights are changed and maintained by the use of a ladder which is affixed to the towers. Each tower has a commemorative plaque as well, with a brief history of the lights engraved on the plaque. The lights have been in continuous operation for over 100 years, and during that time, the lights have only been turned off twice.

The first time they were turned off was in 1905 when the lights were unlit for week during a dispute between the members of the city council and the Water and Light Commission. The second time they were turned off was in 1973, when the national energy crisis required the city to turn them off to conserve energy.

The moonlight towers are another example of the uniqueness of Austin, as well as Austin’s intention of preserving our heritage and honoring its historical significance. Many people travel to Austin to see the annual lighting of the Zilker Tree, which includes a yearly celebration of the Zilker Moonlight Tower, so be sure to visit Zilker during the holidays and check out the beautiful, tall, lighted tower, which is lit to resemble a tree, or drive through the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods and take a look for yourself at these legendary lights!

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