Sunday, April 1, 2018

Detroit's Nineteenth-Century Moonlight Towers

Newport, Rhode Island introduced the first gas street-lighting in America in 1803. Throughout the nineteenth-century, it was the preferred method of outdoor street illumination, but the system was expensive to install and each lamp had limited range. In the 1880s, electric carbon-arc lighting offered a relatively inexpensive alternative to coal-generated gas lighting.

Large municipalities who could afford them invested in moonlight towers to illuminate large expanses like parks and public squares. Each tower was crowned with six carbon-arc lights giving off 200 times more illumination than the most powerful incandescent light bulbs.

Because the "moonlight" was harsh, the arc-lights were mounted 175 feet high and lit up a circle with a radius of 1,500 feet.  Downtown nightlife became a new reality for many Americans who believed that general illumination drove criminals deeper into the shadows.

The lights buzzed loudly and dropped shreds of burning ash as the carbon electrodes burned quickly and had to be replaced nightly. The height of the moonlight towers made them difficult to maintain, so a counter-balanced "dumbwaiter" elevator system was soon developed to change out electrodes more efficiently.


Detroit winter street lit up by a moonlight tower.

Detroit had one of the most extensive moonlight tower systems in the country inaugurated in 1882. One-hundred and twenty-two towers were placed 1,000 to 1,200 feet apart. The entire system illuminated twenty-one square miles. By the turn of the century, most of the towers were replaced by incandescent lighting once the AC electrical grid was laid out. Detroit sold its towers to several small municipalities such as Grand Rapids, Michigan and Austin, Texas.

Austin moonlight tower.
In 1885, Austin, Texas was terrorized by a serial killer known as the Servant Girl Annihilator, who killed eight servant girls all attacked at night. The only night light Austin had in those days was moonlight, but when the evening skies were cloudy, Austin had no light at all.

Detroit agreed to sell thirty-one of their used moonlight towers to Austin. Over the years, the lamps have been refitted with modern mercury-vapor light bulbs which require much less maintainence than the crude carbon-arc technology. Seventeen of their original thirty-one towers--the last of the moonlight towers--are still in operation.

Austin city officials were ready to remove the towers by 1976, but they were too late. The moonlight towers were inducted into the National Registry of Historical Places. In 1993, the city dismantled and rebuilt each existing tower for a citywide Moonlight Tower Festival which began in 1995. Next time you are in Austin, Texas, behold some Michigan history.