The Pueblo de Los Angeles, formally named "El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora La Reina de Los Angeles sobre el Rio Porciuncula", was a charter venture of Spain to settle Alta California with military outposts, as opposed to the missions of Father Junipero Serra which were already assuming land and indigent laborers as centers of commercial interest. The pueblos would provide the commercial and agricultural needs of the military. Governor de Neve took the assignment of creating this settlement very seriously and had elaborate plans drawn up outlining the details of its infrastructure, something virtually never done before settlers stepped foot on the land. The plan included a governmental directive for the provision of water to be delivered to the settlement, stating, "there should be examined all the lands which may receive the benefit of irrigation, marking the place most proper to divert the water, so that it may be allotted to the largest portion of lands." It was also directed that the pueblo be placed on moderately elevated ground so that all the agricultural lands benefiting from the irrigation could be overlooked. This would mean that the supply head would have to be at yet higher ground.
The Zanja Madre was placed at a location close to present-day Broadway Street at the foot of the Elysian Hills by the river. An earth and brush dam, called a toma, was created to pool up the water into the ditch which then ran along an elevated slope down to the pueblo after which it was split into multiple ditches which ran to the various portions of lowland. At one point a large water wheel, constructed in the 1850s, took water up to the Zanja Madre and onto the main brick reservoir that was located in what is now the Plaza at the end of Olvera Street. The wheel was eventually destroyed by a flood. Thus the Zanja Madre only refers to that single ditch portion which flows down from the river along an elevated slope which borders on the northeast of the train yards. The toma was washed away several times before a wooden one was built in its place. It was recommended that the open ditch be abandoned and a 3,320-foot-long (1,010 m), brick-lined ditch be placed in its stead. A ditch of varying size, approximately five ft wide and 2 ft high, yet of inaccurate alignment, was built in the soft sandy shoulder of the elevated bluff. In the 1870s, the city decided for health reasons to cover the ditch with brick to create a tunnel.
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