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The Zanja Madre (English: "Mother Ditch") is the original aqueduct that brought water to the Pueblo de Los Angeles from the Río Porciuncula (Los Angeles River). It is referred to as an open, earthen ditch that was completed by community laborers within a month of founding the pueblo. The ditch underwent many alterations over the years and was in use until the early 20th century before it was replaced by modern piped water supply systems.
The recent construction and grading along the Metro Gold Line have created a major archaeological interest in its latest "rediscovery" and possible preservation.
The Pueblo de Los Angeles, formally named "El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora La Reina de Los Angeles sobre el Rio Porciuncula", was a charter venture of Spain to settle Alta California with military outposts, as opposed to the missions of Father Junipero Serra which were already assuming land and indigent laborers as centers of commercial interest. The pueblos would provide the commercial and agricultural needs of the military. Governor Felipe de Neve took the assignment of creating this settlement very seriously and had elaborate plans drawn up outlining the details of its infrastructure, something virtually never done before settlers stepped foot on the land. The plan included a governmental directive for the provision of water to be delivered to the settlement, stating, "there should be examined all the lands which may receive the benefit of irrigation, marking the place most proper to divert the water, so that it may be allotted to the largest portion of lands." It was also directed that the pueblo be placed on moderately elevated ground so that all the agricultural lands benefiting from the irrigation could be overlooked. This would mean that the supply head would have to be at yet higher ground.
The Zanja Madre was placed at a location close to present-day Broadway at the foot of the Elysian Hills by the river. An earth and brush dam, called a toma, was created to pool up the water into the ditch which then ran along an elevated slope down to the pueblo after which it was split into multiple ditches which ran to the various portions of lowland. At one point a large water wheel, constructed in the 1850s, took water up to the Zanja Madre and onto the main brick reservoir that was located in what is now the Plaza at the end of Olvera Street. The wheel was eventually destroyed by a flood. Thus the Zanja Madre only refers to that single ditch portion which flows down from the river along an elevated slope which borders on the northeast of the train yards. The toma was washed away several times before a wooden one was built in its place. It was recommended that the open ditch be abandoned and a 3,320-foot-long (1,010 m), brick-lined ditch be placed in its stead. A ditch of varying size, approximately five ft wide and 2 ft high, yet of inaccurate alignment, was built in the soft sandy shoulder of the elevated bluff. In the 1870s, the city decided for health reasons to cover the ditch with brick to create a tunnel.
The soft, sandy tunnel collapsed several times and attempts were made to repair it with brick lining, but the whole aqueduct was abandoned in 1884 after a flood tore out the wooden dam. It had already been realized since 1878 that several improvements would have to be done to the zanja¹ systems. Some of this included conversion of the smaller ditches to pipelines while larger areas would be concrete. After this last failure the earthen toma and open ditch were put back into service while more elaborate plans were being made.
In 1888 the city planned to put pipe in most of the existing zanjas, but budgetary shortfalls did not allow the work to be finished. The tunnel at the headwater of the Zanja Madre was reconstructed and much of the conduit was either brick or concrete lined. By 1893 there ended up some 50 miles of zanjas in the city and another 40 miles of zanjas outside the city limit. Over the years the portion of the Zanja Madre that passed around the north edge of the River Train Yard was realigned again and again until railroad construction eventually demolished most of the conduits as the city built newer types of water systems.
In 1978 archaeologist Julia Costello discovered a portion of the Zanja Madre during construction of the Plaza de Dolores.
In 2000 two people allegedly dug up a section of the Zanja on the steep slope near a Broadway parking garage and were credited by the L.A. Weekly and Los Angeles Times as having discovered the Zanja, but as it turned out later, they had merely come across the well-known brick "bulge" between the parking garage and the UP paint barn while trespassing on Union Pacific property. Later, archaeologists overseeing site operations near the MTA Blue Line, later named Gold Line, studied the portions of uncovered brick conduit. They expected to find more portions along the line near the River Yard, but there were no discoveries. It was generally supposed that the Zanja had been destroyed during railroad yard construction over the years. Another brick find, supposedly on private property, was uncovered during a weed whacking operation. Since it was private property, no archaeological surveys were made. This part of the Zanja was what was supposedly discovered in 2000. It is an area on the back side of an abandoned mill on Spring Street, and the old Union Pacific paint barn, which had been a favorite area for mill and UP employees taking their cigarette breaks. This area, which is open on the side facing Broadway in Chinatown, and from the Spring Street side, had been a playground for the local children and source of bricks for local gardeners for many years. This is one reason why many locals met the news of the new "discovery" with puzzlement, for the location of the Zanja had been known by almost everyone living in Chinatown, Dogtown, Elysian Park, Solano and Echo Park.
In 2005 MTA construction crews uncovered unexpected sections of the brick Zanja Madre. This section was found following the path predicted by early Zanja investigator and amateur archaeologist, Rudy Zappa Martinez in 1975, when he used a compass, a plumb bob and stick to follow the Zanja's path from its terminus in Olvera Street, along to the bulging section behind the Union Pacific paint barn, up to the point where it disappeared into the sandy hillside by the cornfield trainyards, and onwards toward the river. Archaeologists were brought in to evaluate the finds, most of which were red-brick, penstock-sized aqueducts. Now serious studies and documentation have begun in order to have the Zanja Madre routes put onto historical registers.
- 1 - The word zanja was also used by the American water companies, even so much as to refer to their watergate keepers as zanjeros.
- Irrigation Development: History, Customs, Laws, and Administrative Systems Relating to Irrigation, Water-courses, and Waters in France, Italy, and Spain. The Introductory Part of the Report of the State Engineer of California, on Irrigation and the Irrigation Question, Volume 2 (Google eBook)
- "The History and Archaeology of the Zanja Madre, Los Angeles, California", Cogstone Resource Management, Inc. Prepared for the MTA under contract to UltraSystems Environmental (2003). Contains valuable bibliography.
- KCET Departures slideshow of the Zanja Madre slideshow