‘Pomona A to Z’: Z is for Zanja

[Well, here we are at the end of our little recap of my 2004-05 “Pomona A to Z” columns. I had the topic for Z picked far in advance, relishing the neatness of ending the series the way it began. People kept asking what Z would be but I think the only person I told was Mickey Gallivan, and that’s only because I interviewed her for it. This column was published June 19, 2005.]

You’ll really dig Pomona’s letter Z

Zounds! “Pomona A to Z,” which began in this space last (gulp) July 18, today finally reaches the 26th letter: Z.

Yes, it’s been a zigzag path to Z, but now we’re at the zenith of the “A to Z” ziggurat!

Here we can sip zinfandel, munch on zwieback and dance to zydeco music, while reminiscing about the Z Channel and musing about the zeitgeist.

But let’s hold the zeal until Z is revealed.

Admittedly, my job would be a lot easier if Pomona had a zoo. But to my surprise, the city is zaftig with Z’s:

* Zarzuela, or Spanish musical theater, performed annually at Ganesha Park by (whoa!) the L.A. Opera.

* Jim Zorn, a former quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks who set 10 school records in football at Cal Poly Pomona.

* Tom Zasadzinski, Cal Poly Pomona’s official photographer.

* Dorothy Ziolkowski, a hard-workin’ volunteer for the Friends of the Pomona Library.

* Zzooms Bail Bonds, located near the police station, the better to zoom in to get you out.

Blow me down with a zephyr!

Our Z, of course, is none of these. Admittedly obscure, this Z was there at the start of Pomona, and it’s still there today.

It’s zanja.

(No, not ganja, which was there at the start of Jamaica, and is still there today — zanja.)

Pronounced “sahn-ha,” this was the stone-lined ditch that carried water to Pomona’s first settlements.

It was dug beginning in 1840 to bring water from San Jose Creek to the adobes for irrigation and personal use.

“It was the first water system,” says Mickey Gallivan, president of the Historical Society.

Short segments still exist outside the three remaining adobes: La Casa Primera and Palomares Adobe, which are public, and Alvarado Adobe, which is privately owned.

I learned about the zanja when I visited La Casa Primera (1569 N. Park) for the letter A. Docent Luis Guerrero showed me the ditch in the back.

Going out the way “A to Z” came in, we’re back to the beginnings of Pomona.

Two ranchers, Ygnacio Palomares and Ricardo Vejar, were given title to 15,000 acres of former mission land in 1837, when California was still part of Mexico.

Vejar settled in the south. Palomares took the north, building La Casa Primera, the first house in the Pomona Valley.

He soon had a neighbor. He invited his cousin, Ygnacio Alvarado, to build a house a stone’s throw away.

(Archaeological note: This stone has not been found.)

Alvarado dug the zanja in 1840. It was enlarged as more settlers moved in and needed water, according to an 1888 report by the state engineer.

Palomares moved to a new, larger home in 1854, now known as Palomares Adobe (491 E. Arrow Highway), and a zanja was dug there, too.

A drought in the early 1860s killed thousands of cattle in California, making vast ranches hard to sustain. Vejar borrowed money at predatory rates and lost his holdings.

Palomares’ widow sold 2,000 acres of the homestead in 1874 for $8 an acre to two investors. The sale spelled an end to the Rancho San Jose days — but paved the way for Pomona!

Investors sold off lots for the fledgling city, which incorporated in 1888 with a population of 3,500.

Progress eventually zonked the zanjas.

“The little ditch that had brought water from San Antonio Canon across the sandy waste lands became tunnels and pipe lines and irrigating ditches …” wrote Bess Adams Garner and Miriam Colcord Post in a Historical Society pamphlet.

In L.A., a zanja resurfaced, literally, in March 2005. The Zanja Madre (“Mother Ditch”), the city’s primary water source from 1781 to 1904, was discovered by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which was grading land for a rail line.

The 4-foot-wide, brick-lined ditch was quickly reburied out of concern people would develop an interest in history.

In Pomona, the zanjas have been seen by generations of children on field trips to Palomares’ two adobes. The adobes are open to the public from 2 to 5 p.m. each Sunday.

The longest zanja is at La Casa Primera. Two feet wide and almost two feet deep, it’s lined with rock and has a bottom of dirt and pebbles (and dead leaves and weeds).

The zanja begins at the corner of Park and McKinley, then winds behind the house. It passes under a fig tree reputed to be 150 years old and disappears into the pavement at the rear of the property.

A zanja runs through it.

Hey, that could be a movie!

(David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, columns that should be ditched.)

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  • Ms. Lois

    Thanks for reprinting this, David. It was great to see it again!

  • Bob Terry

    Great job on Z for zanja. Being a direct descendent of Don Ygnacio Palomares, I can’t recall that word being used in the book Windows in an Old Adobe. I recall ditch being mentioned so now it’s maybe a good time to re-read it. My family lineage is table 15 in that book and ends with my two late uncles, Edmund and Tommy Cervantes. I recommend that book to anyone who wants to know more about the Palomares, Vejar, Alvarado families and others.

  • Bob Terry

    Sorry everyone, forgot to mention that the book is available at the Pomona Historical Society. Mickey will gladly guide you to it as she did me.

  • Eric


    I thought this was an amazing idea and commend you for your (past) efforts. Congrats! Any thoughts on attempting this for other cities? I know it was time consuming, but the citizens of the subject town might enjoy it. At least it would help expose some of the lesser known qualities of that community.

    [I always intended to do these for other cities, and may still, but man, was “Pomona A to Z” a lot of work! Far more than I anticipated. Now that I’m blogging it’s even harder to find the time and concentration for such a project. But thanks for the kind words and the encouragement, and you never know… — DA]

  • Bob House

    Mention of “Windows in an Old Adobe” got me to revisit the Inland Empire section of my bookshelf to find “A World of Its Own” by Matt Garcia, “Claremont: A Pictorial History” by Judy Wright, “Mexican Serenade” by Pauline Deuel (about the Padua Hills Theater and Players),”Pomona Queen” by Kem Nunn and “Sleeping Giant – an illustrated history of Southern California’s Inland Empire” by Rob Wagner (and published by the Daily Bulletin).

    I’d really like to hear what other books about or set in the Inland Empire you and other readers may have or know about.

    Also, about “A to Z,” why not try letting readers compile and submit lists — even single letter choices — for a town you select. I think it would be interesting and possibly s head-start on research for your next installment in the popular series — well, a “series” after you do the second one =-)

    [Intriguing idea, Bob. Your first question may be best answered with a separate post in the next few days. — DA]

  • Marjorie Hutton

    Hi. I googled the book Window in an old Adobe and came across your blog. Bess Adams Garner is my husband’s Great Aunt. He is also one of the Yorbas and also related to the San Juan Capistrano Mission. Our daughter has a special assignment from school to do a report on this Mission and I’m very interested to get some information on this book. His cousin does have the original book but we would like a copy ourselves and I am having a heck of a time trying to locate it. Can you please help with any information you may have in order to help our daughter to learn all there is to know about her ancestors. I would greatly appreciate any help I can get.

    [These sort of local history books can be very hard to acquire once they go out of print, as they have limited print runs and the people who buy them tend to keep them, or at least secondhand bookshops tend not to want to take them due to limited interest. But you could try the Pomona and Claremont historical societies to see if they can help. — DA]

  • Bob House

    I found my copy at bookfinder.com. They have several copies available now, starting at about $70 (which is more than I paid a few years ago).

    [Thanks for that window into the price, Bob. — DA]

  • Bob House

    . . . just discovered reprint copies are avaialble from the Historical Society of Pomona (pomonahistyorical.org) for $25 + tax/shipping.

    [Even better! — DA]