Zanja Madre

Zanja Madre

The remnants of the first water distribution system in Los Angeles can still be found in a few places in Downtown.

The Original Irrigation System of Los Angeles

Almost as soon as the 44 Pobladores settled in Los Angeles, they started work on a system to bring water from the Río de Porciúncula (now the Los Angeles River) to the settlement. They built a dam of rocks and branches in Elysian Hills, near where modern-day Broadway meets the L.A. River (right across the street from the Portola Trail Monument).

This hand-dug canal, called Zanja Madre (Spanish for “Mother Ditch” or “Mother Trench”) was the first irrigation system in Los Angeles. At its peak, the zanja system was comprised of more than 90 miles of waterways that drew water from the river into Los Angeles and its outskirts for drinking, cooking, and irrigation. Some of these channels were lined with concrete or made from brick, but many were simply open-earth ditches.

The whole system has disappeared with time, but there are still two places in Los Angeles you can see the remnants of La Zanja Madre.

Zanja Madre, Olvera Street

The herringbone bricks signifying where the Mother Ditch once flowed across Wine Street. Photo from the author’s collection.

The Zanja Madre ran for more than a mile from the Los Angeles river into the central plaza of the Los Angeles Pueblo. Thanks to a series of red bricks placed in a herringbone pattern, you can still see where the ditch crossed Olvera Street (back when it was known as Wine Street), near the Avila Adobe, as seen on the 1873 map of the pueblo by cartographer A.G. Ruxton.

Ruxton’s 1873 Map of the Los Angeles Pueblo with Zanja Madre represented by a blue line. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Because it was open and accessible in the central part of the Pueblo, the waterway was also used for washing clothes, bathing, and served as a town sewer.

Sometime in the 1850s, a large waterwheel was placed along the Zanja Madre and fed into a brick reservoir on the east end of the Pueblo. A representative waterwheel is on display in a shop along Main Street, behind a glass window emblazoned with “La Zanja Madre” (in the Papyrus font, no less).

La Zanja Madre window on Main Street. Photo from the author’s collection.

While Zanja Madre served water to Los Angles for 125 years, the simple system couldn’t keep up with the rapid growth of Los Angeles at the turn of the 20th century.

It was ultimately abandoned in 1904 at the recommendation of William Mulholland, superintendent of the newly formed Los Angeles Water Department.

Zanja Madre, Los Angeles State Historic Park

During construction of the Gold Line (sorry, L Line) in the early 2000s, workers unearthed a 60-foot section of the brick-lined Zanja Madre between Broadway and what is now the Los Angeles State Historic Park. Today it’s noted by a humble hand-painted sign hanging on the fence at the park’s border.

The Zanja Madre sign with the remains near the bottom of the image in the background. Photo from the author’s collection.

You can see the Zanja Madre from the walking path on the northern side of the park. But unfortunately, you can’t get very close. It’s behind a fence, beyond a set of railroad tracks, past another fence, and across from a service road only accessible by city workers (at least officially).

The sixty foot section of La Zanja Madre as seen from the Los Angeles State Historic Park. Photo from the author’s collection.

And, as its at the bottom of a hill beyond a retaining wall, you can’t get a good view of it from the Broadway side.

It’s somewhat depressing that such an important element responsible for the growth of Los Angeles from sleepy pueblo to busting metropolis doesn’t even have an official city designation, let alone a way to get a better view of it (without trespassing over two fences and a pair of Metro rail tracks — which I don’t recommend).

The Zanja Madre has been submitted for consideration to the National Register of Historic Places a number of times. And while it’s certainly worthy of that distinction, it’s been rejected each time with the explanation that there’s just not enough of it left to demonstrate how large and important it was to the city.

Zanja Madre

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Tom Fassbender is a writer of things with a strong adventurous streak. When not exploring Los Angeles, he’s been known to enjoy a cup of coffee or two. You can find him at Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


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