By Helen Wallace
It began in February, 1891, when four girls met after school and explored the mysteries of our bay in a borrowed boat. At every opportunity after that, they could be found in a boat, enjoying every minute they were on the water. The following year these four girls — three sisters, Lena, Agnes, and Caroline Polhamus and their best friend, Zulette Lamb — decided to organize. They used the first letters of their names, put them together, and called themselves the Zlac Rowing Club. Later that year, another member was added when they asked Florence Roper, now Mrs. Paul Case, to join them.
Charles Hardy generously supplied his 4-oared boat for the club’s use for three years. The girls knew it was heavy, but they didn’t realize how heavy until, in June, 1894, the San Diego Rowing Club gave them the use of a 6-oared barge. What speed! What luxury! What a boat!
By 1895, the club membership increased to ten, and Lena Polhamus became the captain. She and her crew worked hard to improve their rowing form and speed. They dreamed of some day having a boat of their own with “Zlac” on it. Later, when the San Diego Rowing Club barge was no longer available to them, they again prevailed on Mr. Hardy, and were glad to have his boat again to use. The dream of their own barge persisted, however, and the club incorporated and became the Zlac Rowing Club, Ltd. Friends and families subscribed to an issue of bonds, and an eight-oared barge costing $1000 was ordered.
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. It is difficult to imagine how they maneuvered those skirts while plying the oars so expertly.
With the completion of the barge imminent, gala plans were made for its launching. The date was set for August 3, 1895, at 4:30 in the afternoon. Engraved invitations with black and yellow ribbons affixed with sealing wax were’ sent to well-wishers. Then it was discovered, a few days before the launching, that the barge could not possibly be ready even though the men were working as hard and fast as they could. Capt. Lena learned that there was something the club could do to help, so on Thursday, August 1st, the girls spent the day from early morning to late at night shellacking the interior of the boat. With this help the launching proceeded as planned, and for some time after, we learn from an early member, the girls were known as “The Shellacs.”
The launching of the barge was a high-light of Zlac history. The population of San Diego in 1895 was approximately 18,000, and 1,000 attended the ceremony. The City Guard band played, a historical sketch of the club was presented by Henry H. Palmer, and an original poem by Philip Morse was read. Judge I. B. Dudley gave an address, the barge was christened by Mrs. J. G. Decatur (with highly carbonated mineral water), and, with a salute fired by a gun crew of 18 from the Naval Militia, the barge was launched. What a great day it was!
The club made many adventurous plans now that they had their own craft. They rowed to Chula Vista for lunch on several occasions. They rowed to Pt. Loma, anchored the barge, hiked over to the ocean-side of Pt. Loma, and had lunch at a resort hotel that was there around the turn of the century. They “camped” over night at the Quarantine Station near the harbor entrance. In September, 1895, they took their barge aboard a yacht and sailed to Catalina, where they had great fun exhibiting their expert rowing.
Form and speed became increasingly important with the acquisition of the barge. Capt. Lena, who later became the club’s commodore, was strict, but the girls loved her and worked hard for her. Their efforts were rewarded by many victories for the black and yellow. There were several other crews organized in this period. In 1901 two of them, the Mariners and the White Caps, were invited to join Zlac, and the club membership increased to 30. Thus Crews I, II, and III were formed, and many of those who were members then are active members today.
A boathouse of their own now became the club’s “project”. In 1902, after months of planning, another dream came true when the boathouse was completed. It was located at the foot of H St. (now Market St.) and was extended by a pier out over the water. It boasted a reception room, which was to be the scene of many memorable social events, a kitchen, verandas, and a locker room. The barge could be lowered from and raised to the locker room where it was kept when not in use. It was a great improvement over the makeshift protection afforded it prior to this time. An early club booklet set down the duties of each oar. For instance, Oar #1 had the following duties:
OIL DYNAMO (sic) BEFORE HOISTING BOAT (MONDAY CREW ONLY)
OIL BLOCKS WHEN NEEDED
PUT PENNANT AND FLAG IN BOAT
HAUL UP BOW TRAP DOORS
FIRST ONE IN BOAT
USE THE BOW BOAT HOOK
SLIP THE GIRTH UNDER THE BOW
LAST BUT ONE TO GET OUT OF THE BOAT
COIL BOW PAINTER
SKINIKIN (whatever that is!)
Space doesn’t permit listing the other seven Oars’ duties, but it appears that they all had to work, not only at rowing but in taking good care of that barge. The good care has paid off because it is still in use today. Another barge, Zlac II, was christened in 1914, and throughout the years, these two boats have provided many young, ladies the opportunity to learn to row. The present boathouse built in 1932 is located at the north end of Mission Bay in Pacific Beach. Recently several smaller boats were added to provide greater activity for members and their families.
Membership is now limited to 500 resident members, and the crews number 15. Dr. Agnes Polhamus, a retired dentist who lives in New York City, is the only living founder. The club retired the title “Commodore” with the death in 1957 of Lena Polhamus Crouse. She was the spark of Zlac in the early years, and later it was her spirit and courage that inspired the club to be the unique and highly respected organization that it is today.
A jackpot for maritime historians, with an early Zlac Rowing Club crew in front of the famous sloop Restless, the power yacht Dolphin and an unidentified salmon-boat. In the background is the immortal U.S.S. Hartford, whicb had served as Farragut’s flagship at the Battle of Mobile Bay.