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Women and children wash clothes at the Zanja Madre, or “Mother Ditch.”
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

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Life and death on LA’s first water system

The zanjas were beautiful and essential, but also dangerous and dirty

In 1903, William Mulholland presented an end-of-year report to Los Angeles’s newly formed Board of Water Commissioners. “The zanja system has made its usual poor showing for the year,” he wrote. “It would certainly be the greatest folly to spend any more money in new construction on this system.”

The commission took heed, and the next year the zanjas were officially abandoned. This closed a chapter in the city’s history that stretched from the founding of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula (The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of the Porciuncula River) in 1781 to the turn of the 20th century.

For more than a century, the zanja system, a series of irrigation ditches that brought water from the Río de Porciúncula (now the LA River) to the homes and fields of Los Angeles, was the lifeblood of the region. At its height in 1888, 52 miles of zanjas, half open earth and half concrete, ran within the city limits. An additional 40 miles of zanjas ran outside the city proper. Controlled by the local government, the water that flowed in these zanjas enabled life, and occasionally death, to flourish in Los Angeles.

The construction of the first zanja, often referred to as the “Zanja Madre,” began almost as soon as El Pueblo de Los Angeles was founded. It was a townwide project, with every family contributing to its construction. A toma (dam) was built using brush, branches, and rocks collected by local children.

This dam was located near the Broadway Bridge under the Elysian Hills. Men and boys used shovels and hoes to construct the zanja, which ran along the original plaza (the plaza was moved to its present location after the flood of 1815), the geographical center of the town, and east along the new agricultural fields. Farmers dug ditches from the Zanja Madre to their land, and used primitive stop gates to control the flow of water.

A woman carries a water jar from the fountain at Olvera Street. The Zanja Madre ran from the Los Angeles River for more than a mile to the pueblo’s plaza, where the Olvera Street marketplace is now.
Historical Photo Collection of the Department of Water and Power, City of Los Angeles

The zanja was essential to the young town. The zanjero, who oversaw the zanja, was an extremely important official. Women and Native American servants collected water in ollas (water jars) for domestic use. Farmers used it to irrigate their fields. Children could often be found splashing around in the zanja, and many used it as a bathtub. It was also used as an unofficial sewer, a streaming washing machine and giant trash can.

The town council attempted to stop some of the more unsanitary practices, but to little avail. By 1836, Don Rafael Guirado, one of LA’s leading citizens and the future father-in-law of Gov. John Downey, was voicing that age old LA complaint, stating that the “volume of water in the Zanja Madre was insufficient for the needs of the pueblo.” According to historian J. Gregg Layne, author of Water and Power for a Great City, the town council had a disturbing solution to this problem:

It was then decreed that… Don Basilio Valdez, in company with a few residents, should arrest all drunken Indians and compel them to work on said zanja until the water would be increased. Just how they were to accomplish this was not told.

Despite their range of problems, many visitors commented on the beauty of the zanjas. After California became an American state in 1850, new zanjas began to be dug throughout the city.

A panoramic view of Los Angeles, looking east from Boyle Heights (then called Brooklyn Heights), in 1877. The Los Angeles River runs through the center of the drawing.
California State Library

In 1857, LA installed a large, picturesque waterwheel at the head of the Zanja Madre to increase the flow of water. California boosters like John S. Hittell, author of the hugely influential 1863 book The Resources of California, waxed rhapsodically that “the water rippled musically along the zanjas and delicious odors came from all the fragrant flowers of the temperate zone.” He continued:

The stranger’s notice is attracted by the zanjas, or irrigating ditches, which run through the town in every direction. These zanjas vary in size, but most of them have a body of water three feet wide and a foot deep running at a speed of five miles per hour. They carry water from the river to the garden and are absolutely necessary to secure the growth of the vines and the many fruit trees…

Private water trucks, some carrying muddy water from the LA River, others cleaner water from the zanjas, increasingly supplied water for private household use. In 1857, the first domestic water company was founded in Los Angeles, and the first reservoir was built in the town plaza in 1860. Until 1902, private water companies controlled domestic water use (using water taken from the zanjas and later the LA River), while the zanjas continued to supply all the water used for agricultural and landscaping purposes.

A zanja (center left) runs in front of sprawling lawns on Figueroa Street, circa 1892. The banks of zanjas often functioned as de facto parks.
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

The boom of the 1870s and 1880s severely tested the zanja system, which city officials attempted to expand along with the town’s population. In 1879, new rules were sent out to deputy zanjeros, who were tasked with patrolling the increasingly tangled zanja system.

Zanjeros were required to visit those who had obtained water permits twice a day, to assure they were not abusing their claim. They were to stop all people engaged in illegal trading of claims. If someone did not have their city-issued “water permit” stating that they had paid for usage on the day in question, the deputy zanjero could arrest them if he discovered them using water. Illegal bathers and polluters could be arrested or fined. Deputy zanjeros were also required to carry a shovel at all times, in case a break or stoppage needed their immediate attention.

As the town continued to grow, misuse of the zanjas became more and more of a problem. In 1873, the town council issued an ordinance stating that “no person shall throw any earth or filthy matter into the canals or zanjas of the city; neither shall any person or persons bathe or wash clothes, horses or other animals in the canals or acequias.”

According to Layne, this infuriated locals, who for decades had enjoyed bathing in zanja waters. To get around this ordinance, families dug out private pools, shaded by groves of trees, and filled them with water illegally funneled from the zanjas:

An amusing tale is told of a prominent family’s pool, located near the Plaza, where certain days were designated for the use of the pool by the feminine members of the household and their girlfriends. This day was announced to the boys of the neighborhood by the lilting feminine laughter that arose above the playful splashing of swimmers. Now, old timers will remember that along the banks of the zanjas grew nettles, and it was a practice for the neighborhood boys to cut the nettles and throw them into the gentle flowing zanja a few hundred feet above the illegal private intake to the swimming pool. One of their number was stationed at the diversion point to guide the nettles, which floated about 10 inches below the surface of the water, to their destination. Their arrival was announced by startled shrieks of pain as the nettles struck home, for that was before the days of the protective bathing suit.

A mansion on Figueroa, fronted by a zanja. By the early 20th century, pipes—not zanjas—would be introduced to wealthy neighborhoods.
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

The green banks of certain stretches of zanjas often functioned as de facto parks. Wild celery, cultivated illegally at night by Chinese residents, grew along the banks of one zanja, while shading fruit trees allowed children to rest after an illegal swim. Certain stretches on newer zanjas were paid for by wealthy residents and included ornamental posts and bridges of concrete wide enough for a sidewalk or carriage path.

Sometimes, life along the zanjas could take a violent turn. Tom Brooks, the superintendent of the privately owned Los Angeles Municipal Water Company, which supplied domestic water, told of being confronted by ornery Zanjero Charles Jenkins one day in the 1880s. According to Layne:

Jenkins came upon him one day while he was in a ditch inspecting some work and demanded that Brooks immediately discharge two of his men, who in some way had interfered with the city Zanjero’s plans. Tom Brooks refused the demand, whereupon Jenkins drew a dangerous looking knife that he habitually carried in his belt, and demanded that Brooks come out of the ditch immediately so that he could cut his heart out! Tom again refused this demand, whereupon the Zanjero rode away upon his horse—and Tom Brooks lived on to a ripe old age.

Jenkins had reason to be stressed. As the town was transformed from a dusty pueblo into a Wild West metropolis, problems with the zanjas grew. They became increasingly filthy and smelly, and supplied an inadequate amount of water. Most of the zanjas were still little more than open ditches, and as the population increased, so did the number of people, particularly children, who drowned in the zanjas. In 1882, the Los Angeles Times reported on “almost another death from the open zanjas”:

The four-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. T.L. Roberts…fell into the zanja on Hewitt Street about 3:30 o’clock yesterday afternoon, and was swept away by the swift current nearly a block before he was discovered and rescued, which was fortunately done without serious results beyond a bad fright for the child and his parents. The frequent repetition of such accidents of late renders it absolutely necessary that the zanjas running through the city be covered, and if it is not speedily accomplished the city may be called upon for heavy damages.

Children were not the only ones in danger. Echoing modern-day problems along the Los Angeles River, many indigent and inebriated people were often discovered drowned in the gentle currents. Illegal bathers also increasingly lost their lives.

In 1883, the Los Angeles Times told the story of the discovery of would-be bather Henry Sesler:

About 2pm [Carlos Cruz] discovered the body of a man lying undressed and apparently dead in the zanja. He gave the alarm, and shortly after, with the aid of his father, lifted the body out of the water. It was cold and had no signs of life. The dead man’s clothes were lying neatly piled up under some willow trees near by… the theory of his death is that he either fainted away while taking a bath and thus lost control, or was taken with cramps, and unable to get out of the water.

In the mid-1880s, the city finally responded to the epidemic and many of the open zanjas were covered and turned into primitive pipes, but fatalities still occurred. By the 1890s, it became clear that the zanja system was an antiquated relic from the past, and use of the zanjas was slowly phased out.

According to Layne, many of them retained their usefulness as city water mains or municipal storm drains as the city got more and more water from the LA River for private use. In 1902, the sophisticated private domestic water system and the rather primitive public water system were combined. The new Los Angeles Municipal Water Department now owned six reservoirs, two pumping plants, and 337 miles of pipe that led to 23,180 individual water services.

The romantic times of the zanjas and the zanjeros, of open streams and illegal pools, went the way of the adobe and the rancho. Periodically, chunks of the Zanja Madre have been discovered by construction crews, most recently in 2014, when workers excavating under the site once occupied by Little Joe’s in Chinatown found a 100-foot section of the Zanja Madre. Today, you can still see a brick outline of the Zanja Madre as it zig-zags its way up historic Olvera Street. It is a reminder that since her founding, Los Angeles has always been searching for the perfect water system, and rarely meeting its own demands.

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