Workers discover part of L.A.’s first municipal water system

Workers at a Chinatown development site discovered a 100-foot section of L.A.’s first municipal water system, dating to 1781.


Workers excavating the site of a $100-million Chinatown development have discovered a 100-foot section of Los Angeles’ first municipal water system, an ancient maze of brick and wooden pipes and conduits that once fed the city.

The 4-foot-diameter brick pipe that was found beneath what once was Little Joe’s restaurant is part of the so-called Mother Ditch, or Zanja Madre, that carried water from the Los Angeles River to the young city, its channels twisting and bending along a 90-mile network.

The antiquity was uncovered April 10 as workers were beginning construction on the Blossom Plaza, a five-story mixed-use apartment and storefront project on North Broadway. About 73 feet of the Mother Ditch have been exposed at the project site.


When first created in 1781, the Zanja Madre was an open ditch fed by a small dam built in the river, the city’s main water source at the time.

Decades later, a 40-foot water wheel was constructed to increase the ditch’s gravitational flow to a brick reservoir near Olvera Street. From there the network of pipes fanned out, carrying water to homes and to fields for irrigation.

Worried about public health, officials enclosed the Zanja Madre in 1877. It was finally abandoned in 1904.

Bits and pieces of the old water system have surfaced over the years. In 2005, workers constructing the Gold Line trolley extension came across a section of the Zanja Madre. About 75 feet of the uncovered pipe remain visible next to the trolley line and Broadway.

Other remnants can be seen in the basement of Olvera Street’s 1818 Avila Adobe and along Figueroa Street, where a 3-foot-deep concrete “Sister Zanja” runs a short distance outside St. Vincent’s Catholic Church near the corner of Figueroa and West Adams Boulevard.

A spur of the Zanja Madre also provided water that powered the millstone at the 1881 Capitol Milling Co. plant on Spring Street. The flour mill closed in the early 1990s.


City Councilman Gilbert Cedillo, who represents the Chinatown area, said a 40-foot section of the Zanja Madre will be removed Saturday from the Blossom Plaza site and preserved for future display. The plan is to exhibit sections of the Mother Ditch at the Blossom Plaza, the Los Angeles Historic State Park and at Metabolic Studios’ planned Los Angeles River Water Wheel replica project, he said.

Cedillo said the preservation of the Zanja Madre section is significant because it “served as the lifeline to the survival and early development of Los Angeles.”

He praised Blossom Plaza’s developer, Forest City Enterprises, for taking pains to hire an archaeologist to monitor the excavation work and cited the willingness of Lauren Bon of Metabolic Studios to finance the Zanja Madre’s excavation.

Archaeologist Lynn Furnis, on-site monitor with the Orange-based Cogstone Resource Management Inc., was quick to identify the brick pipe as being part of the Zanja system and immediately notified city officials, Cedillo said.

Sherri Gust, an archaeologist and Cogstone company principal, said experts had been searching for the Zanja Madre since the project’s start. “We made a map of where we thought it might be and that’s where it was,” she said. It was about 12 feet beneath the site’s surface.

Workers will use a vacuum to remove sediment from the brick Zanja Madre and carefully lift it out of the ground with a crane before taking it by flatbed truck to the river site where Bon’s waterwheel project is being planned.

Nate Arnold, senior construction project manager with Forest City Enterprises, said a way will be found to integrate a portion of the Mother Ditch in Blossom Plaza’s planned cultural center.

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