My search for the Los Angeles Zanja Madre and introducing William Mulholland– thief or visionary?

I feel like I almost need to apologize for taking a huge story and distilling it down to read-in-one-sitting proportion. OK. It will probably take two posts, but I can promise that if you really get deeper into the story of water in Los Angeles you’ll discover it is more entertaining than fiction. My only reasonable goal, however, is to introduce a little historical context along with a brief character development of one of the most influential, yet controversial men responsible for the rise of Los Angeles, and perhaps encourage you towards further reading. If you live in California, it’s almost a requirement.

I don’t know what turned on the light, but for several months I’ve had an almost insatiable interest in connecting the dots in the story of California. My primary focus has been centered on the transition from the Rancho days of Spanish rule through the era of Mexico’s independence from Spain, followed by the US turning the tables once again, declaring war on Mexico. All of this leading to California becoming a territory of the United States in 1848 and achieving statehood in 1850. It’s  a big story.

But then, California is a big state! To drive from the northern border to the southern tip is a longer journey than traveling on the opposite coast from Maine through at least six New England states.  California has so many varied needs and interests, it’s often charged as ungovernable. But numerous considerations of dividing the state in two, the first denied by Congress in 1861, highlight a significant problem.

There’s this little matter of water! Southern California, semi-arid, drought-prone, and overpopulated, is dependent on elaborate and somewhat controversial systems of water delivery.

Traveling north on one of the main arteries running the length of the state I always enjoy a glimpse of the California Aqueduct, 701.5 miles of primarily concrete-lined channels conveying water collected from the Sierra Nevada Mountains as well as the valleys of Northern and Central California with delivery to otherwise parched Southern California.

But the idea of a water aqueduct started much, much earlier than the modern California Aqueduct, and the history leading up to a system of water delivery is complex and prone to conflict.  First we need a little context.

Los Angeles, or, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles (the Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels) was a Spanish pueblo founded in 1781.

The Avila Adobe, built in 1818, is the oldest standing residence in Los Angeles.

Olvera Street, part of the Pueblo, exists today as the oldest part of Downtown Los Angeles, and is now considered a tourist attraction with its restaurants and colorful carts selling leather goods, candy and trinkets.

Exposed original street

On a recent trip to Olvera Street I was focused on finding a particular landmark. I wanted to find the Zanja Madre. What is that?

The site of the original Zanja Madre

The Zanja Madre, or Mother Ditch, was Los Angeles’ original aqueduct. It was an open, earthen ditch system that ran for more than a mile, connecting the Los Angeles River to the Plaza (where Olvera Street is now) providing not only drinking water, but also irrigation of surrounding vineyards and agricultural land.

Diagonal bricks mark the position of the original ditch, Zanja Madre

From the very beginning, water was a source of conflict. Under Spanish colonial rule the pueblo held exclusive rights to the water from the river, with a communal interest in maintaining equitable use. Los Angeles sits in a semi-arid coastal plain and all water needed to be managed efficiently.

View of current Los Angeles City Hall from Olvera Street

But the city grew! In 1854, water administration took on new dimensions as the city council’s “water overseer” administered the distribution of irrigation water, which seemed to work well for agriculturists within the city limits, but homeowners grew more and more dissatisfied with the open-ditch water supply, polluted by bathers and animals.

Irish immigrant William Mulholland arrived in Los Angeles in 1877, when the city had a population of about 9,000. Originally employed as a ditch digger, he was soon hired as a Deputy Zanjero–basically the tender of the ditch– with the Los Angeles Water Company. Then in 1898 the city council didn’t renew the contract with the Los Angeles Water Company, forming the Los Angeles Department of Water, and hiring Mulholland as superintendent.

In the early days of Mulholland’s role overseeing the delivery of water to ever-expanding Los Angeles, he was tremendously concerned with conservation. The rudimentary water system was still dependent on rainfall for filling strategically positioned reservoirs, and against public pressure, he instituted the first metering system in the city, attempting to control flagrant waste of the precious resource.

While certain wealthy and influential citizens wasted water,  ignoring the pleas of officials warning that water levels were perilously low, a social  invitation of the time indicates water scarcity, warning “If you expect to retire, take your blankets, and if this is your month to bathe furnish your own towels.”

At  the turn of the century the Southern Pacific Railroad was a significant transportation system, credited with contributing to major population growth, and by 1903, the population of Los Angeles had swelled to 175,000, putting great strain on the city water supply. Mulholland estimated a per capita demand of 150 gallons per day and determined that at the rate of estimated growth, by 1925 the required volume would be more than double the minimum flow of the Los Angeles River. Something had to change.

It’s at this point the Water Wars begin to really heat up. Solutions to the water “problem” were proposed, but at what and whose expense?

Opinions are dramatically divided on whether William Mulholland and other city leaders were land swindlers and crooks, or brilliant visionaries.

In my next post I’ll contribute a brief overview of how water eventually gave rise to the city of  Los Angeles, and I wonder if you’ll consider the solution an ethical response to a very large problem or fall into the camp of those who believe  Mulholland and his cohorts ushered in a long season of dirty politics.

Whatever the truth, and I’m not sure I have adequately settled the question for myself, the problem of water is always going to be a concern.

The current population of Los Angeles is 3,819, 702. That’s a lot of people, huh? How about Los Angeles County? Try delivering water to 9,889,056 people. That’s a lot of baths!

Until next time…Be sure to turn off the tap when you brush your teeth, okay?

And if you’re possibly as interested in the topic as I am, may I suggest reading an excellent book on the subject, “William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles.” It’s written by Mulholland’s granddaughter, Catherine Mulholland–there’s an interesting perspective!

47 thoughts on “My search for the Los Angeles Zanja Madre and introducing William Mulholland– thief or visionary?

    • You are so right, Charlie. Mulholland and several of the “water giants” have major streets named after them. I’m not sure, but it’s probable they were responsible for naming the streets in the first place! :-)

    • Yes, Karen. Mulholland Drive is named after William Mulholland, who was a civil engineer…he probably named it after himself! It’s a very scenic highway, considering it’s right in the middle of some of the most heavily congested traffic areas in the Los Angeles area. :-)

  1. Water is indeed a controversial topic, and its scarcity in various locales worldwide is of serious concern. This story is very interesting and good to know when the little ones ask, “Where does water come from?” Plus, I just really love the words ‘zanja madre’ — it sounds like something I might say in a moment of frustration…

  2. Everything has a history, thus I applaud your effort in examining the history in order to understand the present. Great post! …. and hope to see you at Saturday’s party which will probably last most of the weekend!

    • Glad you stopped by to read about another city’s water history, Frank. With all the movies representing the darker history of Los Angeles I find the history of the city very fascinating…I guess you could tell that! I’ll have my grandchildren all weekend, but I’ll still be checking in on the party! See you there! Debra

  3. I love visiting historical sites, so I really enjoyed this post. I especially like the photo of the exposed original street – it brings the past more clearly into view. I can just imagine how bumpy that ride was for early methods of transport!

    We spent 2 weeks in California some years ago, primarily in Palm Springs for a corporate retreat and then we extended our stay to take in as many places as possible – we explored the desert in a jeep, drove throughout the Santa Barbara mountains (incredible scenery, but a scary drive in some places!), and even took in some of the cities (the desert and mountains were my favorites though, I’m not really a city gal). It amazed me that we could be lying by the pool in Palm springs while viewing snow-capped mountains in the distance – we were even treated to a sand storm! Quite a thing to behold. :) It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip for us (because it was paid for by my husband’s company!) that I’ll never forget.

    • It’s really nice to hear that you had an enjoyable time in Southern California. We have so much to offer in diverse landscapes and natural beauty, if only we could do something about the congestion! LOL! We have too many people–but our friendly climate seems to bring people in and keep the rest of us, despite a whole list of things that are really not very inviting at all! You’ll notice that I mostly share the “good” sites/sights! You’ll have to come again sometime. It’s nice when business pays for such a trip. We did the same with Florida a few years ago and that was so fun to go clear across the country on someone else’s expense account! :-)

    • I am so glad you enjoyed the post. It was hard to keep it contained and not make it too sprawling. It’s a much bigger history than appropriate for a blog post…I wonder if someone would like to have me come and lecture? Ha!

  4. Thanks, Debra, for the post. It’s nice to hear some Olvera Street history. It’s such a tradition to go there and now we know more about it.
    Have a great Thursday! Love, Kathy

    • You knew most of this, didn’t you, Kathy? If you’d like, next time you come down to get those taquitos, take me with you. I’m just sure you’d all enjoy having me walk up and down the street with you…your own personal tour guide! :-) Ha!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Nancy. I struggled a bit with what to add and where to cut it off! Los Angeles doesn’t have a desalinization plant, I don’t believe. There are a few smaller ones in central and northern California, and I don’t know why we don’t have one. I do know that all over SoCal there is talk, and that environmental groups have been very vocal against them, with concern that sea creatures can get trapped against the screens or harmed by the heated water. Like almost everything else it seems, there are stalemates! And at the same time we don’t put any limits on growth. Older, smaller homes are being replaced by absolutely huge, oversized “mansions” with water needs that defy any logic. I’ll stop now…can you hear me revving up? LOL! Debra

  5. Oh, this was SO interesting, Debra. I can’t wait for the concluding post. :-) I love social history such as this and as someone who has spent most of her life with a private water supply from her own well, I know all about the importance of not wasting water.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Perpetua. I wondered if anyone outside of California would be interested, but you’re absolutely correct that conservation and protecting our resources is a worldwide concern. History is so all-consuming once I begin to ask a few questions. I am very glad you enjoyed it today. Don’t encourage me too much, though, I could go off the deep end, and really I just need to share book references from time to time! :-)

    • The story behind Mulholland’s fame is really incredible. Unfortunately it is SO big that it can’t be covered well in a blog post or two, but I think at least my California readers might really want to know a bit more about him. And it’s funny how Mulholland Drive is so well known. There was a time it was known as a great “make out” spot. Hey! That’s could be a new series for you, Andra. I will always think of the “greatest tinkle spot” and laugh! Maybe makeout spots should fit in somewhere! LOL!

  6. So that’s the Mulholland of Mulholland Drive. Huh. I never knew this side of LA before. So interesting! We lived in Phoenix for a short time and I remember the issue of water. It is a fascinating. So much more to it than I realized. :)

    • The story of water in Los Angeles is a huge story, and I think we’re nearing the time when most Southern Californians won’t even know it! Mulholland Drive is indeed one of those iconic spots. I look forward to sharing about Mr. Mulholland. I think he’s a very intriguing figure! :-)

    • Thank you for stopping by, and I’m glad I could show a few more photos of a side of L.A. you didn’t know. It’s a very large and diverse place, and television likes to show the same spots over and over. We get a kick out of that when we watch a show. But isn’t that same for most places. If we haven’t visited another state or country, we only know what we see through media images, and you’re right about that…sometimes that isn’t good at all!

  7. A fascinating read Debra. An education and so very topical today!
    I noted the date of the oldest buliding as 1818, it made me smile liviing in a town where my local pub is older than that :) our house is 20 years younger! What are we like…. no don’t answer!
    I was also surpised to see ho wsmall LA is 3 million, I thought it would be bigger, but I presume that is just the city of LA?
    I’m looking forward to reading the next installment – I’m a sucker for a good story and love how aquaducts have been built over the years, the physics, the engineering all have a story.

    • You delighted me with your careful reading, Claire. I had to restrain my enthusiasm for the topic just a bit because I could feel myself lapsing into lecture mode. But I really wanted to emphasize the age of the Los Angeles. We are the new kids on the block, even in the United States. When I consider that my great-grandparents were alive in the very years I’m talking about it really brings the point home to me. And it also explains why Californians, maybe in particular Southern Californians, often respond as though we are the center of the universe. We are adolescents! Ha!

      I hope I got my population statistics from a very reliable source, but yes, I’m quite sure the 3 million didn’t include all the incorporated areas. Even I get very confused sometimes when we hear “Los Angeles,” and wonder what part are they talking about. My daughter lives in San Pedro, but that’s still Los Angeles. It gets very confusing. Like I said, we’re still young and trying to figure it all out! :-) I’m so glad you were interested. I wasn’t sure anyone would much care! Ha! D

  8. This is a fantastic post, Debra! I love to learn about what lies beneath the current infrastructure. I never knew LA started out as a pueblo! And the importance of water: it’s a struggle dictates by a landscape so alien to my own. Fascinating stuff, thanks.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post on our water struggles, Kate. I think you’ll enjoy hearing more about William Mulholland. He was quite a figure! And the struggle for water was plagued by violence and all sorts of intrigue. I’m just stuck a bit bringing it all down to size! And yes, Los Angeles was a pueblo. And many of the ranchos are still sitting in the middle of large metropolitan areas. I think there is so much more “here” to digest than tinsel-town, but only one brings in revenue! Oh well!

  9. Great post Debra. The book sounds like something Mr F and I should read.

    I’m really glad you’re writing about the water situation here in S. California. I can’t tell you how many times I still see people cleaning the sidewalk with the hose or when the sprinklers water their front lawns they water more concrete than lawn, and we haven’t had rain in months and months.

    A coincidence? I just bought a book yesterday at my museum shop called “Elixir- a history of water and humankind” by Brian Fagan. [i.e.Making sense of water and it's place in the development of civilization]

    • I simply can’t believe how water is wasted! I notice how many times the city is sprinkling a green belt and the water is pouring down the drains! I think you’ve give me another book I may want to read. And I know you’d enjoy the Mulholland book. I’m sure of it! I just bought another one by Catherine Mulholland, “Calabasas Lives, Pioneers of a Western Outpost.” It’s obviously more about the settling of the San Fernando Valley, but I’m kind of getting into this topic! I see some field trips in my future! :-) Hope you’re handling this heat with more grace than I am, Rosie. I’m beginning to feel cranky! It’s cutting into my activity level. Ha!

  10. Dear Debra, this posting fascinated me. Back in the early eighties, the League of Women Voters got me interested in what was then seen as the main problem of the 21st century–the availability of water. But here you are teaching me that this has been an ongoing problem in Southern California since the 19th century.

    I do so hope you will tell us much more. I enjoy learning about the past and how it continues to influence the present. You write with such clarity that I never get lost amidst the factual details. Thank you. Peace.

    • Thank you for sharing the interest in Southern California water issues with me, Dee. I’m looking forward to sitting down and taking the story a little bit further. There are so many aspects I find interesting so it’s been a little challenging to me to bring it down to scale a bit. It’s been well over 100 degrees for about a week now, and when you think about the fact that we have had very little rain all year, we simply must get our water from other places. The pioneers really had a hard time of it! What I find interesting is that they settled here anyway! So part of my inquiry has been to try to understand that! History is fascinating, isn’t it? Thank you so much for encouraging me to add a bit. I was certainly hopeful that others who don’t actually live in the state would still find something of interest! :-)

  11. Debra, this is wonderful to read about good old Southern California and how it came to be the place we love to visit… I enjoyed the part on water rationing or the lack of it and wonder why many still waste it in LA… With the shiny car culture and all, gallons are wasted at car washes daily… Looking forward to reading the rest. Oh yeah, Mulholland Drive always makes me dizzy! :-)

    • I find the history of Southern California quite a mixture of contradictions, and because I have always lived here, it’s entirely possible that I’m still quite blind to many of the idiosyncrasies. I do think that we are an “adolescent” state, and as a result, we don’t know our history at all. I have friends who don’t know a thing about the California Missions and I’m a little appalled at that! A blog can only cover so much of a giant story, but I know I’ll be sharing more simply because I am so interested myself. I’m almost a little obsessed at the moment. Some good books are responsible for that, I think! :-)

    • I have had a hard time finishing up my little history lesson! Once I opened the door and realized I needed to complete it I then, too, really realized how huge a story it is. Not particularly easy to bring into blog-sized proportion. Los Angeles is indeed huge. The City itself is large, but then it also encompasses dozens of incorporated areas. I don’t even know the full extent of the statistics. The city originally started without a plan, and it didn’t take them long to realize there were problems with resources. I hope I don’t lose everyone with a little history from time to time. It’s what I read, and occasionally a topic really catches hold and I get so absorbed I just have to share a little bit. Next time I’ll pick a smaller topic, though, and not try to explain the whole of our water wars! LOL!

      • It is a challenge to write about what you are interested in but also keeping it interesting for your readers. it is also a challenge to not get too wordy and yet share the complete topic so it isn’t too much of a snapshot. I too have the same struggles. Take Care, Thea

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