Bill Barrow, head of special collections at the Michael Schwartz Library, said on Jan. 30 that the Cuyahoga River is Cleveland’s most important historic feature and the reason for the city’s location, as he discussed the Crooked River Contrasts exhibit on the library’s first floor.
The Crooked River Contrast exhibit, created by Cuyahoga50 with the help of West Creak Conservancy and a group of local photographers and materials from Cleveland Memory Project, has been displayed at 15 locations throughout Northeastern Ohio.
During the last year the display appeared at the Cuyahoga Community College art gallery, Cleveland Hopkins Airport and Cleveland Metroparks West Creek Reservation.
The contrast referenced in the title of the exhibit compares the importance of the river in Cleveland history against its national reputation as a polluted, fire-ravaged catalyst to a national reclamation movement.
Barrow emphasized the river’s role in the development of the area.
“I would argue that [Cleveland] could have been anywhere along the lake,” Barrow said. “We’re here because of the Cuyahoga River, and specifically because of the portage.”
Barrow also said the river had national importance. He noted that at one time the Cuyahoga River served as a treaty line dictating what parts of the country were open for exploration.
“In a way you could almost argue [the Cuyahoga River] was the western boundary of the United States,” he said.
The river continues to be a dividing line to this day. According to Barrow, Clevelanders’ east-versus-west mentality traces back to the river being very difficult to cross.
The river became more famous nationally after the Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969, but Barrow says that wasn’t anything out of the ordinary at the time and river fires were common occurances.
“When people come to us wanting a picture of the Cuyahoga River Fire, all we can give them is one from some other year that was more dramatic,” he said.
“The fire was so ordinary, the fact that it happened, nobody even bothered taking a picture of it.”
Whether people remember the Cuyahoga River for its geographical significance or one of its many fires, Barrow said he hopes through the Crooked River Contrasts exhibit it will be remembered as integral to the origin and development of the city of Cleveland.