I am a history geek and anytime I can shoot something that opens up a little window of the past for me is an exciting opportunity. Loving to shoot the LA River as I do, as well as water issues in general in and around the Los Angeles area, when I read about the discovery that a 100 foot section of the Zanja Madre had been discovered at a construction site in Chinatown, I knew I had to get myself down to the site and get some shots. The Zanja Madre or Mother Ditch, is a remnant of the 90 mile network of channels that first brought water to the early inhabitants of Los Angeles. Originally built in 1781 it was enclosed in 1877 and eventually abandoned in 1904.
I first made a few attempts to contact the local City Council member, Gil Cedillo. He had ingrained himself into the situation as only a politician can, and I thought he might provide some opportunity for me to get in. A vague maybe from his media person turned into nothing, so I found myself driving down to the site on Friday morning hoping to talk myself onto the site, my back up plan would be to try to shoot it from the Metro Gold line station that overlooked it. As luck would have it, I simply walked into the contractor’s office, showed them my press credentials and was promptly handed a hard hat, an orange vest and a waiver to sign. The day was looking up.
There was only a cameraman from KCET shooing as I slid down the beveled sand embankment to the brick cylindrical brick pipe that lay at the bottom of the unearthed dig. Workers were in the process of cleaning out the pipe of its 110 year old accumulation of sludge and sand. Included in that mix was an assortment of old glass bottles, mostly in fragments, but at least one still whole. The plan was to remove about a 42 foot section of the pipe and transport it to the nearby Metabolic Studio for safekeeping. One end of that section had already detached from the rest of it, but the other end had to be sawed off in order for its removal to be possible.
I got there just as the sawing was finished and the last of the old sludge was removed and so was one of the first to be able to look down and see the cleared interior of the pipe in over a hundred years. Obviously an empty pipe is not the most exciting site in the world, but other than being able to play peek-a-boo with the KCET cameraman at the other end, it was a real thrill to see a true piece of history restored to its original state.
Here comes the bad part. The next day a crane came by to remove the Zanja, the plan was to place a series of hammocks under the pipe and lift it to a waiting flat bed truck. Various groups including FoLAR, thought the idea of trying to lift a 200 year old brick pipe might not be such a great idea as the only thing really holding it together was 200 year old cement and mortar. But in spite of the warnings, the plan went forward.
Saturday morning the truck arrived, the hammocks were placed under the pipe and it was lifted onto the truck, so far so good. But the support on the truck was not good enough and around 2pm the pipe caved in on itself and fell into pieces.
The current plan is to try to piece it together brick by brick and restore it to its original shape, but its original condition is lost. The history of water in LA is the history of LA itself, and the Zanja Madre was truly the Mother that fed the city. William Mulholland’s first job with the LA Water department was tending the Zanjas as a Deputy Zanjero (water distributor) before going on to become the leading force in bringing water to Los Angeles. I will post updates as to what happens to the Zanja Madre and any plans for the remaining portions of it left on the construction site. An exciting moment for me, a real disappointment for history!