ZLAC: The World’s Oldest Women’s Rowing Club

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SAN DIEGO—Which came first: women’s suffrage or women’s rowing? This isn’t a trick question. In 2019 we celebrated the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, an event itself that came 24 years after the first-ever women’s rowing club was incorporated.

ZLAC Rowing Club was established in 1895 in San Diego by four women: Zulette, Lena, Agnes and Carolyn. The first letters of each of their names formed “ZLAC.” Several rowing crews have since come and went, but ZLAC is still in existence, currently in its 125th year.

Three of the founders – Lena, Agnes and Carolyn – were sisters. Their father, Capt. Albert Alexander Polhamus, was a port captain in San Diego. He encouraged his daughters to start the rowing club. Zulette Lamb, a friend of Polhamus’ daughters, joined the club as a co-founder. The four of them apparently met for the first time during the winter of 1891 and navigated a portion of San Diego Bay on a borrowed boat.

There were 10 members when ZLAC Rowing Club was originally founded.

“The club uniform in 1895 was a black, ankle-length woolen skirt topped with a matching middy blouse with yellow braid trim on the collar. A yellow tie and a black tam o’ shanter completed the uniform. When the weather was poor, the girls donned sou’westers, and rowed as if to spite it,” Jerry MacMullen, editor of “The Journal of San Diego History,” wrote in an October 1960 article about ZLAC Rowing Club.

An opening night gala to celebrate the incorporation of ZLAC Rowing Club was set for Aug. 3, 1895. The gala was to be held on a barge built specifically for the club – but the barge was not completed in time.

The ZLAC Rowing Club’s clubhouse was originally located on Market Street, close to where the Navy Pier stands today, according to San Diego History Center. The club was donated a piece of land at Mission Bay in 1933, which, at the time, was isolated from the rest of San Diego.

San Diego History Center published a story stating ZLAC Rowing Club is divided into crews: sub-juniors (those admitted at the age of 15); and, Mariners, (achieved when the sub-juniors reach college age).

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