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Meet Me at the Moon Tower

Learn about the history of America’s moon towers and where the last ones still stand!

Coming-of-age high school films often share a common movie trope—one last big night before everyone goes their separate ways. From “American Graffiti” to “Farris Bueller’s Day Off” to the most iconic, “Dazed and Confused.” “Dazed and Confused” takes place in Austin, Texas, and the big party takes place under the moon of kids around a bonfire

The moon tower is a real thing, and there used to be hundreds of them across the country. Wabash, Indiana, started the public lighting craze when they installed carbon-arc lamps on top of city hall. San Jose, California, built the first dedicated moon tower in 1881.

This set off a race to be the most illuminated city in the country. New Orleans installed moon towers along the Mississippi River to aid in unloading ships at night. Detroit, thriving from the lumber industry, rushed to install moon towers, topping out at 122 towers—the most extensive network in the country. It is these towers, the ones in Detroit, that eventually lead us to that famous scene in the 1993 film.

So what are moon towers? Basically very tall streetlights. The height was dictated by both their form and function. When moon towers were built, the incandescent light bulb was new but dim. So carbon arcs were used, the same technology used in welding, so the lights had to be far away to protect people. Also, because they were so bright, the high towers could cast light on a larger area.

All of this—the height, the light source, the distance the light was cast—led to the eventual downfall of the moon towers. A lot of towers, due to their spindly construction and height, were brought down by weather. The carbon arcs buzzed, flickered, and dropped soot—they also burned out every day and needed replacement. The high angle of the light cast weird, distorting shadows. And after the automobile became a staple, the towers became easy targets for new drivers.

As some cities abandoned the idea, Austin jumped in, buying 31 of the towers used from Detroit and erecting them between 1894 and 1895.

The towers have lasted in Austin since then. People don’t mind them—in fact, they are one of the things people like about the city. The lights have been replaced with modern technology, however. One of the towers even serves as the base of a giant Christmas tree during the holidays. The towers have inspired band names, film festivals, an iconic scene from a cult classic film.

The history of Austin’s moon towers is the history of the United State. A little quirky, sort of awkward, and really cool once you dig into it.

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