Zanja Madre - LA's Original Aqueduct

The Zanja Madre (Mother Ditch) is the original aqueduct that brought water to the Pueblo de Los Angeles from the Rio Porciuncula (Los Angeles River). It was originally an open, earthen ditch which was completed by community laborers within a month of founding the pueblo in 1871. The ditch underwent many alterations over the years and was still in use until the early 20th century.

 

 
(1863)* - A water wheel on the Los Angeles River at start of Zanja Madre. The river has been the life-source of Los Angeles since it was settled in 1781.  

 

Historical Notes
The water wheel seen above was 40 feet in diameter. It was used to raise a portion of the Los Angeles River water supply to a height permitting gravity flow to homes, fields and storage. In 1857, William Dryden was granted a franchise by the City Council to construct a system to provide a water supply. Under this system a brick reservoir was built in the center of the plaza to store the water brought to it by the Zanja Madre. A water wheel was also constructed to lift the water from the river to the Zanja Madre. Water then was distributed to a number of houses along the principal streets through a system of wooden pipes. Click HERE to read more about William Dryden.
 

 

 
(ca. 1858)* - This is the earliest known photograph of the Los Angeles Plaza. There is a square main brick reservoir in the middle of the Plaza, which was the terminus of the town's historic lifeline: the Zanja Madre ('Mother Ditch'). The reservoir was built in 1858 by the LA Water Works Company.  

 

Historical Notes
1857 William Dryden and his newly incorporated water company, Los Angeles Water Works Co., erected a forty foot water wheel to lift water from the LA River to the city's main water ditch, the Zanja Madre. He then constructed a large brick and wood storage tank (in 1858) in the center of the city plaza as seen above. It would remain there for about 10 years and then be replaced by a fountain. Afterward, water would continue to be stored in other tanks on the periphery of the plaza as well as in other nearby reservoirs (Click HERE to see more in Early LA Water Reservoirs).
The conversion from total dependence on the zanja system for domestic water to an underground iron pipe water system began in 1867. Jean Louis Sansevain, a Frenchman who owned an extensive vineyard and winery on Aliso Street, was authorized by the City Council to lay 5,000 feet of iron pipe and to build a dam and reservoir. Discouraged by repeated failures, Sansevain the following year offered his lease to a group of individuals who formed a private corporation known as the Los Angeles Water Company.^

 

 

 
(1868)*^ - This manuscript map traces the path of the essential lifeline of early Los Angeles: the Zanja Madre, or Mother Ditch, prepared by cartographer William Moore.  

 

Historical Notes
William Moore, the rendering’s rather robust and tireless cartographer, was county surveyor for two separate terms and a man with such drive that he once tired of waiting for a ship from San Francisco and walked to Los Angeles. Because he was bi-lingual and reportedly quite charming he was involved in many important projects in the days after California gained statehood, including the planning of reservoirs, a sewer system, creation of sidewalks, the Farmers and Merchants Bank, and even orange growing for a time.^^

 

 

 
(1888)*^ - Map showing the route of the Zanja Madre irrigation system prepared by William Moore in 1888.  

 

Historical Notes
The Zanja Madre is shown here from the river at the right edge of the map, running along the bluffs in the proximity of current day North Broadway, completely open to the elements. A few years after this rendering, a brick tunnel enclosed the Zanja Madre in an attempt by the Common Council and the Los Angeles City Water Company to preserve the precious water flowing down from the river.  The map includes the Campo Santo cemetery (the second one) at the end of Eternity Street, the water wheel that propelled the flow toward the pueblo, and the homes of pioneers like Jose Sepulveda, Abel Stearns, and Bernardo Wilson.^^

 

 

 
(ca. 1900)* - Washing clothes at the Zanja Madre. View of three women and two children washing clothes at the Zanja Madre. A few small buildings, visible throughout the image, appear to serve as barns.  

 

Historical Notes
The Zanja Madre system ran from the Los Angeles River for more than a mile to the plaza, where the Olvera Street marketplace is now. Residents not only got their drinking water from the ditch, but the surrounding vineyards and farmland were also irrigated by its water.

 

 

 
(Date unknown)^ - Woman carrying a water jar from the fountain at Olvera Street.  

 

 

 

 

 
(ca. 1895)* - View of Figueroa Street near 23rd Street, showing the Zanja water supply channel and people walking on the sidewalk. The houses have massive lawns.  

 

Historical Notes
The Zanja (Spanish for ditch) was the original water supply channel for the southwest part of the city. It was built in 1868 and rebuilt in 1885 with concrete. The original water supply for Los Angeles was delivered in open trenches despite serious problems with public dumping into the trenches. In the 1880s and 1890s gradually piped water was introduced into more expensive neighborhoods, and the zanjas were used for irrigation only.*

 

 

 

 
(ca. 1900)* - Zanja on Figueroa Street near Washington Boulevard was the original water supply channel for the southwest part of the city.  

 

 

 

 

 
(1938)^* - Map of the Elysian Park area showing waterworks structures dating from Zanja Madre days to 1937.  

 

 

The Uncovering of a Section of the Zanja Madre

 
(1939)* - William W. Hurlbut points to hole punched in Zanja Madre.  

 

(1939) - LADWP Historic Archive

A colorful pageant on May 3, 4, and 5, 1939 marked the formal opening of the new Union Station. To permit widening of the approach to the station, the first home of the Department of Water and Power, corner of Marchessault and Alameda Streets, was demolished. During wrecking operations, State Highway engineers uncovered a section of the Zanja Madre, original water distribution system of the City when it was a pueblo. It is thought that water entered the Zanja from the Los Angeles River at a point near the present Broadway Bridge. W. W. Hurlbut, engineer of water works, points to a hold punched in the primitive water carrier. The four foot diameter brick conduit ran diagonally underneath the old Department building and appeared still to be in an excellent state of preservation. ^

 

 

 
(1939)* - Interior of Zanja Madre uncovered during wrecking of first Department of Water and Power building - The old “Zanja Madre” or mother ditch, carrier of much of Los Angeles’ water supply during the middle of the last century, has again became the subject of historical discourse. This time because workmen, while excavating on Olvera Street, came across traces of a small redwood bridge which used to cross it.  

 

 

Remnants of the Zanja Madre

  As the population grew it became necessary to protect the Zanja Madre from the pollution of the local environment – animals, trash, even an occasional drunk falling in. Consequently, the City Council provided for the zanja to be bricked over so the water would flow through unpolluted. Today, you can see a remnant of the bricked-over Zanja Madre in the area behind the Gold Line station in Chinatown, preserved by the Metro rail system. Also, in the heart of Olvera Street, in the DWP two floor display, at the lower level there is a part of the Zanja Madre preserved there, too.

 

 

 

 

 

< Remnant section of the early brick canal (located west of Union Station)

 

 

 

 
(ca. 2000)* - Scientists working on an archaeological survey across Alameda Street west of Union Station at the time of the discovery nearby of a part of the Zanja Madre (early water canal).  

 

 

 

 

Zanja Madre Final Appearance

The first Zanja Madre segment found on adjoining private property in 2000 is only about 5 feet long. However, the segments discovered by archaeologists in 2004 appear to represent another intact segment of brick conduit of about the same length as the one preserved by Metro on their property.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
(2014)^* - View of another section of L.A.'s original Zanja Madre unearthed at a construction site located on the northeast corner of Broadway and College Street in Chinatown.  

 

Historical Notes
In April 2014, construction crews unearthed a section of the Zanja Madre while excavating for a new five-story mixed used housing project located on the northeast corner of North Broadway and College Street, 900 N. Broadway.

 

 

 

 
(2014) – Google Map view showing location of an original Zanja Madre segment at 900 N. Broadway.  

 

Historical Notes
The famous Little Joe’s Restaurant was located at this corner (Broadway and College) in a building that stood for over 100 years.  In December of 2013, developer Forest City Enterprises started demolishing Little Joe's to make way for a five-story project (Blossom Plaza) that will link Broadway with the elevated Chinatown Metro Rail station above North Spring Street to the east. Blossom Plaza will have 237 residential units, including 53 apartments where rents will be reduced for low-income tenants. It will also house 175 parking spaces open to the public and a landscaped courtyard next to the Metro Rail stop.^*

 

 

 

 

 

 

< Bricks from the Zanja Madre

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Course of Zanja Madre Through Today's Olvera Street

Photo of Olvera Street with enhancement of the brickwork showing the course of the Zanja Madre through the pueblo. Note the Zanja passes right alongside a fountain which would be typical.**

 

 

Click HERE to read more about LA's water works system from the LADWP Historic Archive.

 

 

 

References and Credits

^ LADWP Historic Archive

* DWP - LA Public Library Image Archive

*^LA Public Library Image Archive

^^Los Angeles Magazine: Zanja Madre 1868

^*Los Angeles Times: Zanja Madre; Little Joe's Restaurant

**Zanja Madre - Wikipedia

^*William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles by Catherine Mulholland from Thomas Books, assisted by Laurance E. Goit, Notes on Los Angeles Water Supply, September 1938.

 

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