Sunday, January 3, 2010

Lighting Up The Past: Austin’s Moonlight Towers

It’s hard to believe these days perhaps, but there was a time before ambient light polluted the night sky, that even some of the largest cities in the country were quite dark after the sun went down. This produced problems, not the least of which was increased evening crime.

In the late 1800’s, as innovations in technology made it possible, many municipalities turned to carbon arc lighting to brighten their streets, or, more specifically, their entire town. Unlike street lights which light up a relatively small area, the arc lights were hoisted on top of tall metal towers, sometimes hundreds of feet high. By placing many of these towers in strategic locations around the city, it was possible to light up nearly everything within the city limits. These towers, with their lights, were often called Moonlight Towers.

In the mid 1890’s, Austin was one of the cities which decided to erect the lighting system. Austin bought 31 towers with accompanying lighting equipment from Detroit, Michigan, a city which had received a lot of favorable press since installing the system itself.

Many citizens in Austin, perhaps not as technologically sophisticated as those living in Detroit at the time, worried about the ill effects of living in a city where it would never get dark. Some predicted dire consequences on everything from animals to plants. It didn’t take long after the lights were first lit, however, for the skeptics to see that the ever-present artificial “Moon Light” was harmless.

Over the years, the unique lighting system, which had been installed in so many places around the country, has been phased out in favor of lighting which is easier to maintain and much less expensive. The one exception is Austin, Texas. The city remains the country’s sole remaining location where the towers are still present and the lights illuminate the city from very high above, every night of the year.

Of course, with the passage of time, the towers have all been repaired and restored, and the technology of the lights updated. The actual number of existing towers has been reduced, for one reason or another, by about half. Critics over the years have cited both cost and the unsightliness of the towers to call for their removal, but to no avail. This is Austin after all, a city which takes pride in being different. This city pride, which has preserved the towers and the special lighting system, continues to "lighten" a tangible link through Austin’s past. For that, we can all be grateful.

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