AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin’s moonlight towers (aka moontowers) are a unique piece of the city’s history, and recent sightings of one being dismantled can be a shock for some. But Austin Energy said not to worry, as the utility plans to keep them in Austin (and on this planet) forever.
Austin Energy is solely responsible for maintaining the towers, each of which is a historic landmark.
According to Austin Energy, the towers were last refurbished in 1995. Now, the time has come again to repair, repaint and reinstall each of the remaining towers.
A Brief History of the Moontowers
Austin’s original 31 moontowers came used from Detroit, according to the Austin History Center. Each of the 165-foot towers was made by the Fort Wayne Electric Company in Indiana, which no longer exists; the company’s campus is soon to be converted into a mixed-use district.
Thirty-one moontowers arrived in Austin in 1894 and were fully installed in 1895.
The Austin History Center said there are many urban legends about the towers: they were built to make chickens lay more eggs, they were arranged in a star or pentagram or they were built because of the infamous Midnight Assassin. However, they said none of these are true.
The towers were powered by Austin’s first power plant, the Austin Dam, a hydroelectric plant that drew power from the Colorado River. That dam is also gone — destroyed by flooding.
When they came on, the light from a tower’s six carbon arc lamps reached a 1,500-foot radius and was allegedly powerful enough to read a watch face. In the 1920s these lamps were replaced with incandescent lamps, then replaced with mercury vapor lamps in the 1930s. Air raid fears in the 1940s led to the installation of a central switch for all of the towers.
The moontowers became Texas landmarks in 1970 and national landmarks in 1976. By this time, Austin was the only city on Earth that still had the towers. Just 17 of the towers survived to this point and only six are still in their original spots from 1895.
Dancing in the Moonlight (takes work)
In 1993, Austin began a $1.3 million project to refurbish the towers. This process finished in 1995 and culminated in a festival. Now, a second refurbishing process is underway.
Austin Energy spokesperson Matt Mitchell said the refurbishment has four stages: removal, inspection, restoration, and reinstallation.
“From an engineering and construction standpoint, they were very revolutionary when they were first introduced. We understand how important they are to the fabric of this community and to the history of Austin,” Mitchell said. “They’re so precious to our common history as a public utility and as a capital city. That’s why we take keeping them running and in good condition so seriously.”
Enertech, who Austin Energy contracts for the moontowers, will take a moontower to a warehouse in Kyle for the majority of the work. Each one is dismantled, and every part is inspected and either repaired or replaced. However, 127-year-old technology is not easily replaced.
“The original parts aren’t made anymore, and other parts made in the late 1800s are not made now,” Mitchell said. “It’s a big hurdle, but it’s one that absolutely has to be taken, and every effort is made to restore each moonlight tower with its original parts. Where parts can’t be reused, they are fabricated to very closely match the look.”
Custom-making replacement parts also required approval by the Texas Historic Commission and the City of Austin Historic Landmark Commission.
Austin Energy estimates the cost to refurbish each tower is between $225,000-$300,000.