Feast of Lights: A History of Austin's Moonlight Towers
Walking into the luminescent tree feels like entering the cover of a 160-foot pulsing beam, a twinkling conic shield, separated from the world. Dots of color spiral around me: red, blue, yellow, green, red, blue, yellow, green. I slowly start to spin. The dots blur into long lashes of color, until finally all I see is the piercing, hot white-yellow glow of light.
In Zilker Park every holiday season, 39 strands of multicolored lights are wound from a central tower to create a tree for Austin’s annual Trail of Lights, a public holiday event with novelty lighting displays, food, rides, Santa—the works. The pinnacle of this event is the electric tree, shooting 15 stories into the sky, and the linchpin of this tree, the center rod from which every string of light spirals downward and upon which the giant star at the top rests, is a moonlight tower, one of 17 remaining around the city. The only 17 in the world.
On Christmas Eve, 1885, Mrs. Susan Hancock and her husband readied themselves for bed. Their daughters were out at a Christmas party and, expecting them to come in late, the Hancocks left the door unlocked. Mrs. Hancock retired to her separate room on the east end of their small cottage near the Colorado River. Meanwhile, Eula Phillips and her husband and child went about similar nighttime rituals. In their small wing of Mrs. Phillips’ father-in-law’s house, they tucked themselves into the bed they shared.
Between 11 o’clock and midnight that night, a watchman ran to alert the City Marshal about an incident at the Hancock residence. Later, shortly after midnight, the Phillips household woke to James Phillips Jr.’s desperate cries.
The City Marshal arrived at the Hancock residence, where Mr. Hancock had brought his wife inside from the lawn where he found her. A reporter who arrived with the Marshal described her state in gruesome detail in that week’s paper: “The skull was fractured, in two places and blood was oozing from both ears. Her groans of agony were piercing, and with what seemed to be her expiring breath, cupfulls of blood were emitted from her mouth.”
At the Phillips’ residence, Eula’s in-laws ran into the small room where her family had been and found Phillips Jr. and the child in a bed soaked through with blood. His head had suffered a blow from what appeared to be an ax. Following a trail of blood out to the fence, they found Eula pinned to the ground by a piece of timber, dead, bloodied, and torn apart from ax blows.
That Christmas Eve, there were not yet moonlight towers in Austin. The city was dimly lit by paltry gas lights and the temperamental moon. The Fort Worth Gazette announced two days later, “HELL BROKE LOOSE, Could Not More Appall the Good People of the Capital City Than the Dark and Damnable Deeds Done in the Blackness of Night by Fiends.”
The blackness of night has long been feared for its cover of dark and damnable deeds. That Christmas Eve was not the first incident. Over the course of the previous two years, a killer or killers had murdered at least six people, many of whom were servants—Black women who were raped and bludgeoned with an ax. The murderer was nicknamed the Servant Girl Annihilator. His strikes on Christmas Eve were different, though. He had killed two white women. That night, the community decided that a new level of action had to be taken. A search party was initiated. “The baying of bloodhounds frantically seeking the killer’s scent broke into the usual chorus of Yuletide merriment, chilling holiday spirits,” reported the Austin Statesman. The following morning, a group of concerned local men met to discuss what could be done.
It’s not certain what actions were discussed, nor if any would have been effective. There were no more ax murders after that Christmas Eve, and, though there were suspects, no killer or killers were ever definitively identified. It’s likely that the men discussed better public lighting at their Christmas day meeting. At least, that’s what local legend suggests.
Then, as today, a well-lit town was thought to be a safe town. We are afraid of the dark—not the nothingness of the void, but the unknown fullness of the dark, the potential for evil saturated and spread thick through the night. And this fear sparks the impulse toward order, toward constructing a means of making the unknown knowable, or at least visible.
As far back as the 17th century, European cities began to organize crews of watchmen to patrol the night, the beginnings of the modern police force. Attendant to the watchmen, cities put up fastidiously planned and maintained networks of public lighting: series of lamps that eventually gave way to electric lighting. Policing and lighting have an intertwined history, both originating in worried concern for who and what may pass under the cover of darkness, both thought to be near-solutions for lawlessness and disorder. But as fear and desire motivate order, so, too, do they motivate chaos.
No time is darker, no nights longer and less forgiving, than winter’s. This is perhaps why many of us string up holiday lights: to fight back the season’s dread and inject some joy into the cold nights. Effective marketing, too, plays a part: early 20th-century electric companies sponsored outdoor Christmas lighting competitions in neighborhoods, capitalizing on long-existent rituals of employing stringed lights and candles in holiday celebration. So we spiral strands of lights around trees and wind them around houses. This impulse to celebrate light in the darkest time is no coincidence, nor does it originate with Christmas. As any good contrarian will tell you, Christmas is calendared on the 25th of December to overlay the pagan Saturnalia, and Saturnalia was calendared in accordance with the winter solstice: the longest night of the year.
During the solstice festival season, Romans lit celebratory candles around their homes in hope and preparation for the return of the sun’s light in the spring. They decked buildings with flickering lights and evergreen boughs, surrounding themselves with symbols of life and continuity in the midst of the dark, bleak winter. Early Christians understood these symbols and easily appropriated them into their celebration of Christ’s birth. Early Christian fathers called their Christmas celebration the “Feast of Lights.” Christ became a symbol of these same things: life, rebirth, hope. ”I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life,” Christ promised. But the omnipresence of Christ’s spiritual light did little to prevent the average Austinite from stumbling through the city’s streets.
Moonlight towers were named for their intention to approximate the light of a full moon, that most ominous lunar phase. They were erected in cities throughout the 19th century, making use of a relatively new technology: the arc light. An arc light is ignited by an electric arc, an unnatural, buzzing blue-white glow created from luminous carbon vapor held between two strategically distanced carbon rods, shot with voltage. The average grouping of six arc lights on a moonlight tower emitted up to 1,000 candlepower of light, a measure as charming as it is difficult to visually calculate: the light of a thousand candles. The lights were blindingly bright, too bright to be used indoors and too bright to be kept any closer to the ground than the standard 160 feet.
On May 8, 1895, 31 moonlight towers were brought into Austin, reassembled one triangulated section at a time, and lit up. The towers were sent from Detroit, where they were no longer effective in an ever-growing skyline. Austin, a fraction of the size of that industrial city, embraced them. The Statesman declared glorious success the following day: “For several years now Austin has been groping around in that utter darkness that threatened the life and safety of all. Last night however the situation was changed... not in one section of the city, but in every nook and corner thereof the brilliant lights sent their shooting rays and the whole face of creation was transcendent.” Whether the lights were brought in as a direct result of the murders is unknown, but a mythic connection remains.
The arc lighting wasn’t ideal for Austin’s terrain—shadows pooled in the crevices between the hills, and the thrumming carbon glow wasn’t as long-lasting or efficient as newer forms of electric light that began spreading across the country, even as Austin put up its bastion of towers. In 1923, the arc lamps were replaced with incandescent bulbs. Mercury vapor took over in 1936. By 1967, the towers were an anachronistic vestige, but they remained a point of pride for Austinites, and they decided that year to make use of the moonlight tower in Zilker Park to construct an elaborate, giant Christmas tree.
Old, flickering video footage shows a crew of men assembling the tree for the first time with a system of cranes and pulleys. In the service elevator once used to switch out carbon rods in the lamps, a man catches hold of a giant star, some 10 feet wide, and swings it into place at the precarious apex.
Later that night, the tree was lit for the first time alongside a giant “yule log,” a fiery wooden pyre ceremoniously ignited by a woman with a torch and a dangerously stiff bouffant. The whole ceremony looks very pagan. But there it is, twinkling in the background, the same pattern of spiraling colors ascending up, up, up: red, blue, yellow, green, red, blue, yellow, green.
In his December 1933 essay, In Praise of Shadows, Japanese writer Jun’ichiro Tanizaki laments Western impingement on Japanese aesthetic traditions. One overwhelming and recurrent bête noire: bright electric lights overtaking soft, enigmatic shadows. “We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates,” he writes. “If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light—his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.”
We tell ourselves we’re safe, that the sun will rise, night will end, spring will come, and, if we can just wait until the light comes and we can see what is before us, we will surely see that we have nothing to fear. In the absence of nature’s soothing light, we make it ourselves: grids of electric light serve as matrices of safety and twinkling strands of colors provide a dizzy distraction from the cold. Flocking to the lights we put up to fend off the dark, we are like phototactic bugs. We avoid the difficulty of discerning the beauty of darkness for fear of the unknown danger laden there. It is as though, if we stay in the light, if we eradicate the shadows, nothing can touch us. As I stand under the Zilker tree, contemplating the garish appeal of this holiday tradition cobbled together from borrowed ritual and a leftover electric relic, I wish it were so. I indulge the illusory.
Essay by Melany Jean. Photograph by Lars Plougmann (cropped from original) and appears courtesy of Creative Commons.