The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1973, Volume 19, Number 3
James E. Moss, Editor

Book Review

Phil Swing and Boulder Dam. By Beverley Bowen Moeller. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. Notes. 199 pages. $8.50.

Reviewed by Richard T. Ruetten, Professor of History, California State University, San Diego, coauthor of Quest and Response: Minority Rights and the Truman Administration (1973) and author of several articles in scholarly journals.

At the corner of San Diego’s Third and C Streets, the sparkling water of a memorial fountain catches the eye of those who visit the city’s Community Concourse. Few, however, notice the dedication plaque that proudly proclaims Phil Swing “The Father of Boulder Dam.” Fewer still know who he was. Now, with Beverley Moeller’s book, Phil Swing should receive the recognition he so richly deserves.

A progressive Republican, Philip D. Swing represented California’s “7-11” congressional district from 1921 to 1933, and it was his singleminded advocacy of Boulder Dam that resulted in passage of the authorizing legislation in 1928. The dam was his monument, for Phil Swing was to Boulder Dam what George W. Norris was to the Tennessee Valley Authority. In pursuit of the project, Swing had to overcome the opposition of real estate developers, private power interests, and the state of Arizona as well as contest with bureaucratic inertia and uninterested easterners. During his seven year fight, Swing buttonholed fellow congressmen, organized letter writing campaigns, entertained and enlightened delegations visiting the Boulder Canyon area, published articles, and helped establish the Boulder Dam Association and the Colorado River Aqueduct Association. In view of this total commitment, Swing could be forgiven his disappointment in 1947 when the Republican 80th Congress, in a fit of partisanship, renamed the project Hoover Dam.

Beverley Moeller’s study does more than rescue a relatively obscure congressman. It convincingly documents Herbert Hoover’s initial opposition to Boulder Dam and his subsequent diversionary tactics. No longer can historians accept Hoover’s version of his role, and the book thus adds to the increasing body of literature that seeks to offset the misguided effort to transform Hoover into a progressive who anticipated much of the New Deal. Moeller also casts additional light on the public power controversies of the 1920s, which have generally focused on the fight over federal development of Muscle Shoals. And Phil Swing’s story is another piece of evidence concerning the disharmony within the majority party during the era of Republican ascendancy.

Yet the book concentrates so much on Phil Swing and Boulder Dam that we learn little about his other congressional activities, his progressive Republican associates, and those westerners who supported his campaign for the dam. But to consider these criticisms as major would be captious and tantamount to insisting that the author should have written a different book. Moeller proves her point—that Phil Swing was the father of Boulder Dam. The civic activists of San Diego who raised the funds for the Phil Swing Memorial Fountain honored the right man and thus can be forgiven the minor error, chiseled in the dedication plaque, which dates Swing’s congressional service from 1920 rather than 1921.