The Mother Ditch: Workers Discover 200-Year-Old Municipal System

Construction workers uncovered historic infrastructure in Los Angeles.

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If you get excited about finding clay pottery shards in the backyard or arrowheads in the field across the road, beware: Your history-loving/treasure hunting genes are about to be tickled.

According to an LA Times article, workers in Los Angeles, Calif., who were excavating the site of a $100 million Chinatown development made an interesting discovery earlier this month. Just 12 feet below the site’s surface, they unearthed a 100-foot section of the city’s first municipal water system, the Zanja Madre, otherwise known as the Mother Ditch.

Constructed in 1781, the 4-foot Mother Ditch carried water from the Los Angeles River to the city through a series of winding open ditches. Later on, a 40-foot water wheel was constructed to increase the gravitational flow of the water to the city’s center, and the ditch was closed with brick to make the water more sanitary. The Mother Ditch was in operation until the early 20th century when it was replaced by a modern piped water supply system.

The Chinatown discovery is not the first time parts of the city’s historic infrastructure have been unearthed. In fact, project coordinators had been on the lookout for remnants of the city’s past.

“We made a map of where we thought it would be and that’s where it was,” noted Sherri Gust, an archaeologist and project manager at Cogstone Resource Management in an LA Times article.

Other bits and pieces of the antique water system occasionally pop up around the city. In 2000, a 5-foot segment of the pipe was found on private property, for instance, and visitors to Olvera Street can view enhanced brickwork that shows where the pipe traveled through the area, passing right alongside a fountain where early residents would get water. (Check out some interesting historical photos on the Water and Power Associates website.)

The newly discovered section is headed for some cultural fanfare. Workers will use a vacuum to remove sediment from the brick pipe before carefully removing it from the ground. The city plans to exhibit sections of the Mother Ditch at Blossom Plaza, the Los Angeles Historic State Park and a planned Los Angeles River Water Wheel replica project.

The discovery is a very real reminder that history is just below our feet, and that the past isn’t so far out of reach. Municipal infrastructure has certainly advanced since the days of open ditch water distribution, but it begs the question: Centuries from now, when today’s pipelines are unearthed and viewed as antiquated city structures, what will they have been replaced with?


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