1765 Main St. Green River, Utah
Green River sits along the path of roads and a river, leaning into the Book Cliffs and staring out at the La Sal Mountains. The town is along US-50/I-70, 75 miles west of the Colorado border. Green River began as a river crossing in the late 1800's and experienced many population influxes, first through the railroads, then uranium mining, then as the site of a missile launch complex. Now Green River is home to a little under 1,000 residents with swells of tourists passing through in the warmer seasons. Running through the middle of town is Main St./I-70 Business Loop. Heading east, you'll cross the Green River and towards the end of town, across from the Tamarisk, is the John Wesley Powell River History Museum.
The museum is in a long, low building with a front patio that faces west to the Green River. On the patio are signs referencing both what you can see and what was once there. It's quickly evident that with a history of people moving from east to west and back again, Green River has forever been wrapped up in the middle. Even now the town holds true to its legacy as a layover for travelers with hotels, a truck stop, an Amtrak station and a parking lot where the Greyhound bus pulls in for smoke breaks. And while the river doesn't seem as formidable as it once was for those early pioneers and explorers, it does maintain a presence in the landscape and the community.
Once inside the museum, the main content is its namesake John Wesley Powell (explorer, geographer and anthropologist). Powell makes his appearance in photos, sculptures, statues and animatronics. His biggest accomplishment, for the sake of the museum, is being the first European to pass through the Grand Canyon, taking a three-month river trip down the Colorado and Green Rivers. Prior to Powell's expedition (Powell Geographic Expedition) large areas of the west were still unmapped. In the mid-1800's explorers sought to traverse and survey that landscape. While it's hard to know every man's (because it was predominately European males) motivation, it's likely that glory seeking was tied to the adventure.
In addition to Powell, the museum also presents historical and geographical context for the region. Through diagrams, topographical maps and narratives, you start to form an idea of how Green River, as a town and a river, fit into the greater context of the intermountain west. Unlike the patio there is not an immediate reference point; you can't simply look out and see where you are in relation to the Henry Mountains or the Colorado River. As a visitor, it is both disarming and intriguing to realize how long it takes to learn a sense of location. All of those maps, stories and "you are here" markers give rise to the question of knowing the landscape that surrounds us. Just because it's charted, mapped and named, does it mean we are able to "know" it? Identifying how the Henry Mountains were named and where they are located on a map is different than physically knowing what it's like to hike that range. It's simply ingesting facts, but for some reason there is a comfort to that level of understanding.
On the bottom floor of the museum is a collection of artifacts including boats, oars and life vests. Seeing them against the backdrop of the river, visible through the windows, helps to evoke the spirit of "running the river" and how little stood between those early runners and the currents. It makes the location of the museum vital to its contents. One informs the other. Looking through the windows and back to the bullboat makes you wonder about the need and courage that drove people to contend with rivers that have worn away at stone, flooded plains and marked the passage of time.