Austin, Texas is famous for breakfast tacos and Richard Linklater films. But it also home to a lesser known but equally great phenomenon known as the moonlight tower.
Essentially an infrastructural anachronism, moonlight towers are 50-metre high lighting structures, designed to illuminate several blocks at a time. They were popular in North American cities at the end of the nineteenth century before ubiquitous street lighting existed, as a relatively cheap way of lighting a large city area. A single tower cast light from six carbon arc lamps, illuminating a 460 m radius circle bright enough to read a watch.
The initial construction of these towers was in part a reaction to a local serial killer dubbed the Servant Girl Annihilator, who terrorized Austin between 1885 and 1886. While every other city eventually dismantled their moonlight towers, Austin has made a concerted effort to preserve theirs. 17 of the original 31 still exist and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Why Austin is the only city to preserve their moonlight tower is not clear, but could have something to do with the city’s long history of being a liberal alternative to the conservative environment of Texas (re: their long-running campaign called ‘Keep Austin Weird’). Regardless, the moonlight towers are now firmly embedded in the city’s mythology, becoming monuments in their own right. In Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, the kids of Austin convene at a moon tower for an all-night party, and parties, bands, and events continue to celebrate the odd endurance of these structures.