By Mark Gutglueck
Born on November 4, 1874 in San Bernardino to Mr. and Mrs. James Wesley and Mary Garner Swing, Ralph Emerson Swing would become one of the foremost lawyers and lawmakers of the region in his day. Early in his public life he would play a leading role in protecting the water rights of San Bernardino County. After becoming a state legislator he was instrumental in bringing Colorado River water to California. Still, in representing the larger venue of Southern California, he became aligned with, and his action assisted, Los Angeles interests, the very ones who had designs on San Bernardino County water assets.
Swing’s knowledge of politics and the law were areas of expertise inherited from both his mother and father. Future Senator Swing toiled at his father’s side in the family store situated in a brick building at 4th and D Streets in San Bernardino. Upon graduating graduating from San Bernardino High in 1895, he went to work straightaway in the law offices of Mr. George B. Cole, which allowed him to trace the footsteps of his noted uncle Mr. Randolph Swing, the San Bernardino County representative during California’s Second Constitutional Convention of 1878-1879. After completing a two-year apprenticeship under Mr. Cole, in 1897 Swing received a certificate licensing him to practice law in the courts of the State of California.
He set about establishing the independent practice that consumed his attention from 1897 to 1899. In 1899 the young barrister formed a partnership with Mr. John P. Hight, a noted attorney of many years in the city of San Bernardino. Operating from an office in the Garner building, the pair enjoyed moderate success. In 1900, he ran, unsuccesfully and as a Democrat, for the California Assembly in the 72nd District. In 1902, Swing accepted an invitation to serve in the capacity of San Bernardino city attorney. That same year Swing and Miss Pearl Harris were joined in matrimony. As city attorney, Swing wrote and instituted policies and ordinances aimed at controlling crime and vice or otherwise limiting it to “a proscribed area.” Many of the ordinances defining the acceptable limits of the vice-district, valid use of slot machines and other gambling related devices and activities would serve as templates for a number of state bills authored by Senator Swing during his long and noted tenure in the State Senate. Swing founded the National Orange Show in San Bernardino of which he served as the first president in 1910 and also served a term as the city attorney of Upland.
In the 1910s, he represented San Bernardino in the city’s landmark legal battle with Riverside over control of local water.
In January 1921, the city of Pasadena initiated an effort to appropriate water rights along the Mojave River. After buying or securing options on some riparian properties along the river, Pasadena filed an application with the California Water Commission to allow it to divert 110 cubic feet per second from the Mojave River by means of a 70-mile long aqueduct to provide water and power services in that city. Upon learning of the move, land and water rights owners in the Victor Valley pooled their interests and lobbied the board of supervisors to protest Pasadena’s move and oppose the application. Swing was hired to represent the county before the state water commission.
According to John Brown and James Boyd in their book The History of San Bernardino And Riverside Counties, which was published in 1922, “He has been connected with much of the important litigation growing out of the many complicated and intricate legal questions involved in the adjustment of water, property and mining rights necessarily arising from the development of the resources of Southern California. He is an admitted authority upon the law governing the questions above mentioned, as well as upon the law governing municipalities and involved in municipal legal questions. He is much sought as a counselor upon such subjects and as an attorney in matters involving such questions.
Brown and Boyd continued, “That Mr. Swing has made a success is evidenced by the fact that he stands at the top of his profession and is conceded to be one of the foremost lawyers in the southern part of his native state.The reason for that success is largely due to the energy exerted in behalf of and his loyalty to his clients. It is said of Mr. Swing that he never takes a case that he cannot conscientiously and sincerely advocate to the court, or in which he does not believe his client to be in the right. As a result of such action he has gained and retains the confidence and respect of the courts and of his fellow attorneys. Aside from following his profession Mr. Swing has taken a great interest in the citrus industry and its development, and in civic affairs, and has done much toward the development of a proper civic spirit in his home community. Being a native of San Bernardino, one of the principal objects of Mr. Swing has been to bring the financial, civic and moral standing of his home city to the highest possible standard. Mr. Swing’s prominence in public affairs, combined with his ability as a lawyer and his dependability as a man, have made him one of the best-known figures in San Bernardino County, and won for him the approval of all with whom he is brought into contact.”
On November 7, 1922 Swing was elected as a Republican to the California State Senate in the 30th Senatorial District. He was reelected to that position in 1926. In 1930, he was returned to the State Senate, this time in the 30th District. He was reelected there in 1934, 1938, 1942 and 1946.
On September 17, 1924, about 250 delegates from thirty-eight Southern California cities and communities met in Pasadena and formed the Colorado River Aqueduct Association. At this meeting, they established a committee to draft “an act authorizing the formation of a public district for the purpose of bringing water from the Colorado River …” On January 19, 1925, Senator A. B. Johnson of Imperial County and Senator Swing of San Bernardino County introduced the legislation as SB 178. The Johnson-Swing bill led to the development of the Hoover Dam.
The California State Senate, in one of its first amendments to the proposed act, established the Metropolitan Water District for the purpose of “developing, storing and distributing water for domestic purposes …”
The initial Metropolitan Water District Act, as introduced by Senators Johnson and Swing, proposed that each member agency would have one representative on the board of directors. In 1927, the California Senate, in one of its last amendments to the proposed act, allowed member agencies to appoint one additional director for each $200
million of assessed value. The rationale was that because the initial construction of the Colorado Aqueduct and the appurtenant facilities would be financed with local property tax revenues,those agencies with the greatest financial burden should have a greater presence on the board.
Los Angeles dominated the early boards, relegating San Bernardino County to second glass status with regard to water policy.
Among Swing’s other legislative accomplishments were bills forcing the decentralization of state offices and the restoration of public utility property to local assessment roles. Other noted bills sponsored or authored by Senator Swing of note were the State Agricultural Proration Act of 1938 and several liquor and gambling related bills.
In 1944, he was a delegate at the Republican National Convention
The Ralph E. Swing arena, an indoor auditorium with a10,000-patron capacity with access from E Street, was constructed and named in his honor at the grounds of the National Orange Show in San Bernardino in 1949. It became a venue for many national and international entertainment acts, such that a generation of local residents who were too young to remember Swing as a politician, knew of his stature in the community. On September 11, 1981, the auditorium was irreparably damaged when it was struck by a small plane, killing two people including the pilot. In th aftermath, the building had to be destroyed.
At the time of his retirement in 1950, Swing was known as the dean of the State Senate. Ever the astute businessman, Swing spent his waning years with his second wife Adelaide developing a 2,000 acre property on the north shore of Salton Sea known as the Desert Sea Ranch. A large portion of this property was devoted to a tangerine farm, the fruit from which the enterprising former senator and noted attorney marketed under the name of his ranch.
When he died on February 6, 1961, Senator Swing was survived by his wife, Adelaide; son, Everett H. Swing, a San Bernardino attorney; and a brother, Congressman Phil David Swing of San Diego.
By Mark Gutglueck