It Must Have Been Something In The Water

How four audacious girls created a legacy in 1892 San Diego.

As the 19th century was coming to a close, a new image of the American woman began to emeWoman Row Boat 1890.jpgrge. Women increasingly ventured into public activities once thought only appropriate for men. Although women still filled conventional roles as wives and mothers, the 1890s saw their increased presence in the workplace and their efforts to be recognized as equals in the political arena. Women also showed themselves to be physically capable of athletic accomplishments that extended beyond riding a bicycle.

While the city of San Diego was only 42 years old, 4 enterprising young women in their teens felt the pull to stretch social boundaries by forming the first all women’s rowing team and club on Mission Bay. In 1892 when San Diego was a sleepy little town and women’s rowing was unheard of, four adventurous young women – sisters Lena, Agnes, and Caroline Polhamus and their best friend, Zulette Lamb – borrowed a boat and, using the initials of their first names to form the acronym ZLAC, organized ZLAC Rowing Club, Ltd. The club they founded is now the oldest women’s rowing club in the United States.

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OLDEST WOMEN’S ROWING CLUB IN THE NATION: They called it ZLAC, formed by the first letter of their names (Zulette Lamb and sisters Lena, Agnes, and Caroline Polhamus Crouse. Inspired by their male counterparts, the girls chose ranks—“Captain,” “First Officer,” etc.—and In 1894, the San Diego Rowing Club loaned them a six-oared barge that had been dug up from the bottom of the bay. Shortly thereafter, ZLAC commissioned an eight-oared barge from Fred Carter, the architect and designer of the renowned Herreschoff yachts, famous on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the early days, ZLAC members rowed in two large wooden barges from a boathouse at the foot of Broadway. With increased shipping and boat travel on San Diego Bay, it became necessary to look for another location for the boathouse. In 1929, the club purchased two parcel of land on the northern shore of Mission Bay. ZLAC member and prominent architect Lillian Rice was commissioned to draw plans for the new clubhouse and dock, which was built in 1932. Renowned horticulturist Kate Sessions, known as the “Mother of Balboa Park: designed the landscape.

Still alive and thriving today, ZLAC is celebrating its 125th anniversary making it the nation’s oldest women’s rowing club.

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The story and the legacy these women left is part of the upcoming exhibit at the Women’s Museum of California in the ARTS DISTRICT Liberty Station. Entitled “Women On The Water” this show opens December 2, and will focus on women who rowed and sailed out of history and into the present day.


Ashley Gardner, Women’s Museum of California Board Member
Learn more about Women On The Water here
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