Detroit's historical moonlight towers now light up Texas town

Austin, Texas uses 19th-century carbon arc lighting towers which used to...

By Roger Weber - Reporter

DETROIT - It was a bright idea in its day.

A dazzling source of light perched on structures 165 feet tall. They were called moonlight towers and in the late 1800s the light illuminated the entire city of Detroit.

"Thousands of people would come in just to see them. Drive in on a wagon to go to town just to see the lights," said Father John Staudenmier, an administrator at the University of Detroit-Mercy and the editor emeritus of technology and culture.

One would think this antiquated approach to urban lighting would be long gone. However, the actual towers which once reached high above Detroit are now helping light another city.

That city will be named later in this article. First, let's get a science lesson at Lawrence Technological University.

Detroit's moonlight towers used carbon arc lighting

Physics professor Changgong Zhou has a smaller version of the arc lighting, the way Detroit beat the darkness in the old days.

"We know when you have opposite charges they attract one another," said Zhou.

If the electric charge is strong enough ...

"It turns air into conductors, so electric current can run through the positive end to the negative end," the professor said.

Downed wires can arc and light up the sky. That's what Detroit's towers did. By putting carbon rods together electricity would jump the gap atop the moonlight towers.

"If you look at the design of the moonlight towers, they are very tall towers and they cast this bright light over a considerable distance in a city," said Staudenmier. "So bright, for example, that if we had one in this room you couldn't film and we wouldn't be in here."

In 188, a writer bragged, "The press of this country has uniformly conceded Detroit to be the best lighted city in the world." However, Edison's incandescent bulb was proving far superior to carbon arc lamps.

"The downside is A) they're pretty expensive to run and B) what are you going to do with them if you can't be 400 feet away from them?" said Staudenmier.

One wonders if many folks would have preferred being in the shadows.

"It's very harsh light ... and there is no relief from it wherever it is shining," Staudenmier said.

Detroit's moonlight towers still function in Austin

By the 1890s, when Detroit looked like what you would see now at the Detroit Historical Museum, moonlight towers were on the way out. However, another city wanted Detroit's towers: Austin, Texas.

Today in Austin, the moonlight towers are not only functional, they are cherished landmarks in the Texas town, 117 years after their arrival from the Motor City.

"It's unique. It's something you only find in Austin and it's part of our cultural history. I mean, it's even been in movies, 'Dazed and Confused,' for example," said Frank Strong, of Austin.

Seventeen of the original 31 moonlight towers from Detroit are now serving as giant nightlights over Austin.

"All of the 17 remaining moonlight towers are going to be repainted," said Carlos Cordova, a spokesman for Austin Energy. "We're going to inspect them for cracks, any kind of wear and tear and we're going to fix them."

Carbon arc lighting has given way to a more modern system on the moonlight towers. However, the original structures are on the national Register of Historic Places.

"When we put new bolts and new nuts on them they have to look exactly like they did in 1895," said Cordova.

It's a source of light in a sunbelt city, courtesy of Detroit. Today, Detroit struggles to keep its neighborhoods out of darkness. But the moonlight towers are going strong down in Texas. Maybe the city should have kept a few.

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