The light itself, though, was the true attraction. It was, as Brush had guaranteed, "picturesque and romantic," one observer put it. Within the glow of the manmade moons, "the foliage is weird and beautiful. All places within the scope of light are bathed in the faint but fairy-like illumination of the moon in its first-quarter."
Campus Martius Park in front of Detroit City Hall, lit by a Moonlight Tower in the early 20th century (Library of Congress)
But not all of the crowds were excited about the new buildings studding their town's landscape. On the contrary, "many Detroiters," Freeberg writes, "were skeptical from the start." Some found the towers to be eyesores, each structure braced with a chaotic network of wires and posts. (One man even tried to chop down the wires that hung near his home, an act of civic-cosmetic rebellion for which he was arrested.) The lights also brought unanticipated complications along with their steady illumination. Animals, for one thing, were unaccustomed to the newly extended daytime. Chickens and geese, unable to sleep in this new state of omnipresent light, began to die of exhaustion.
Humans, too, found the high-slung orbs to be as disorienting as they were ethereal. As tall as the towers were, they still left shadows in their wake -- shadows tinged with sharp blue light, Freeberg notes, which left pedestrians "dazed and puzzled." Foggy evenings, combined with the air pollution of a newly industrialized America, could thrust all of Detroit into effective darkness -- meaning, Freeberg writes, that "Detroiters could only speculate about the lovely sight that their lights must be creating as they shone down on the blanket of mist and soot that smothered the city." Even during occasions when the fog broke enough to allow some light to penetrate to the streets below, "many found themselves groping along sidewalks in an eerie gloom."
In the end, the many costs of the artificial moonlight outweighed its beauty and poetry. The structures meant to inspire awe among outsiders ended up inspiring, ultimately, something more akin to pity. ("It appears to me," one frank observer put it, "that you are taking a very expensive way of getting a minimum benefit from the electric lights.") Detroit's newspaper, the Free Press, finally declared the city's celestial lighting scheme "a flat failure." Echoing advice given to city leaders of San Jose, California -- which had attempted its own moonlight grid in hopes of becoming the West's "tower of light city" -- the journalists recommended the system we have today: low-slung lights distributed at regular intervals. The electric light the citizens believed in, the paper wrote, "is one that will light the streets, not a few spots here and there, a back yard or two, and the firmament above."
So the moon towers were replaced, eventually, by a more modular solution. But Detroit's farewell to its moonlighting was a long one. Some of the towers were dismantled. Some were felled by high winds. Some were brought down, Freeberg notes, by "a rash of runaway mules that, in their 'fury,' accidentally knocked down towers." (This was not limited to Detroit. According to one telling, Freeberg writes, the mayor of Hannibal, Missouri, once happened to blow his nose "with so much vigor" that he spooked a mule, which then "dashed down the street, and ran against an electric light tower a hundred feet high, which at once toppled over." A New York journalist, commenting on this quaint event -- and on similar incidents of four-legged fellings in the region -- couldn't decide "whether this proved that southern mules were stronger than their northern counterparts, or that southern towers were weaker.")
One of the moonlight towers remaining in modern-day Austin, Texas, this one located at 8th Street and Rio Grande Street (Wikimedia Commons)
Detroit's remaining towers, for their part, moved south: They relocated to Austin, Texas, where city leaders, having newly constructed a dam on the Colorado River, were eager to make use of their harnessed electricity -- both for convenience's sake and for the prevention of crime. In 1894, the City of Austin purchased 31 of Detroit's used lighting towers. Seventeen of those structures survive today. (You may remember the teenagers from Dazed and Confused assembling kegs for a "party at the moon tower.") They are now, in the words of one historian, "much-loved curiosities" -- objects, generally speaking, of awesomeness rather than awe. And they are, it seems, the last of their kind in America. As a plaque on one of Austin's remaining moon towers puts it:
This is one of 17 that remain out of 31 towers erected 1894-95 and in continuous use since. Their carbon arc lights then illuminated the entire city. Now mercury vapor lamps provide beacons for many miles on roads and airway, from dusk to dawn. Austin is said to be unique in this dramatic method of lighting.