This place used to be off limits, man, ‘cause some drunk freshman fell off. He went right down the middle, smacking his head on every beam, man. I hear it doesn’t hurt after the first couple though. Autopsy said he had one beer, how many did you have? – Slater, Dazed and Confused
Currently on view at Lawndale Art Center, Andy Mattern’s Moonlight Towers are photographs of just that, Austin’s remaining 15 moonlight towers. Taken at dusk, each shot features its subject ever-so-slightly off center, and none of the photos features any humans, giving the entire spread a vague post-apocalyptic feel. It makes for a nice show, especially once you know a little bit about the history of the towers.
Originally there were 31 towers, erected in 1894 and 1895. Back then the population of Austin was only 17,000, a tad bit less than the 1.6 million who now call the city and surrounding area home.
When erected by the Fort Wayne Electric Company, each tower stood 165 feet high. That’s 150 feet for the triangular cast and wrought iron framework, and another 15 feet for the iron pedestal anchored in concrete. Since then pieces of some towers have been borrowed to replace damaged pieces of others, and most now top out at 150 feet.
The towers originally featured carbon lamps whose filaments had to be trimmed and replaced every day. Those lamps were replaced with oversized incandescent bulbs in 1923, and then with mercury vapor lights in 1936. The mercury vapor lights, still in use today, emit a bluish, moonlike cast, just like the original carbon lamps.
So how were the original carbon lamps replaced? Great question. Each tower originally had a one-person elevator inside, and a technician traveled from one to the next in horse-drawn buggy. The hand-operated elevators later were replaced with a simple ladder, and now technicians use crane lifts to make repairs and replace bulbs, which generally require closing off the street.
Before the towers went up, folks feared the 24-hour illumination would create gigantic crops and grass so long it’d have to be chopped with an axe. These fears were entirely logical and in 1896 four city blocks were crushed by the largest lima bean the world had ever seen, which eventually withered and disintegrated after knocking over the very tower that created it. Or maybe not.
In 1930 an 11-year-old boy fell from the top of a tower. James Fowler had been dared (triple dog, we assume) by his friends to scale the tower on the last day of school, and he fell down the inside, with the occasional support wire slowing his fall. He was in a coma for nine days and got 187 stitches but suffered no broken bones.
Rumor has it that the towers were erected in response to a serial killer roaming Austin’s streets. The Servant Girl Annihilator, who predated London’s Jack the Ripper by three years, was known to drag women from their beds and rape them before slashing them to death. This had the city of Austin in a panic, especially after he started killing white women, but all of this went down in 1884 and 1885, ten years before the Moonlight Towers were erected and five years before the citizens approved the bond measure to pay for them. In other words, government doesn’t work that quickly, people, and anyone who insinuates the towers were erected during the height of panic is pretty much full of shit.
Now state landmarks, the towers were almost removed in 1942. This was during World War II, and every city needed to be able to go completely dark in the event of an air attack. But a central switch was installed and the towers lived to fight another day.
Some of the towers have been moved around over the years. The one in Zilker Park, for example, used to stand at Eighth and Brazos. Each December that tower is now lit with 3,000 colored bulbs to become one big-ass Christmas tree. It’s one heckuva place to look up and spin around, no matter how old you are. Especially if you’re high, man.
Speaking of which, the Zilker tower was the location of the “party at the Moon Tower” in Richard Linklater’s 1993 flick, Dazed and Confused. That’s where Mitch and Slater scaled the tower, and where Clint went to kick some ass and drink some beer, and where Milla Jovovich’s guitar playing somehow earned her a spot on the poster, and where…well, you’ve seen the movie, right?