A story is told in these parts of how John Wesley Powell was exploring the Green River in the early 1870s when he viewed the San Rafael Swell in the distance. Captivated by the imposing beauty, Powell beached his boats, grabbed some canteens of water and set out to see what mysteries it might contain.

Powell's mistake was judging how far away the geologic formation actually was. By the time he made it back to his boats, he and his companions were nearly dead of thirst.Or so the legend goes.

The modern community of Green River reportedly sits on the spot where Powell beached his boats. It is only fitting, local residents have always said, that Green River should be the location of a museum honoring Powell's daring exploits.

Green River is a step closer to realizing its dream. The state Community Impact Board has just approved a $1.07 million grant of oil and mineral lease funds to begin construction on the John Wesley Powell River History Museum on the banks of the Green River next to I-70.

It's a project that residents of Emery and Grand counties have envisioned for more than 50 years.

"We see it as a tool to draw people off the I-70 freeway," said Kelly Bayless, a Green River businessman who has spearheaded the quest for funding from the Utah Department of Community and Economic Development.

"Some 3 million people pass us by each year. Maybe we can get them off the freeway and get them to stay awhile in Utah."

The town of Green River approached Bayless several years ago about representing the community in its attempts to get a museum.

"The community is dying out, and the people down here have been crying for someone to come down and save us economically," Bayless said. "No one came. When they asked me to help with the museum, I was more than happy to take on the role."

The John Wesley Powell Museum, which will be operated jointly with the River Runner's Hall of Fame, will be one of six museums in the area. Castle Dale has the Emery Museum of Natural History, Price has a prehistoric museum, Helper has a mining and railroad museum, Moab is building a "stuntman" museum and Blanding has an Anasazi Indian museum.

Bayless sees the Green River museum as the "sparkplug that will make the others run."

"Because we are the gateway, it will be our museum that steers people to the others," he said. "We envision a `Corridor of the Museums,' and it's the John Wesley Powell Museum that will make it all work."

That's because Green River is the first Utah community on I-70 coming from Colorado. Bayless said it's a natural location for a first-rate museum to introduce travelers to the scenic and historic wonders of the entire region.

"It's not just a Green River museum," he said. "It's a museum that will benefit the entire region. And the entire state."

The museum will be a non-profit organization with a board of directors composed of local government leaders from Grand County, Emery County, Green River and Moab. Private citizens, scientists and historians will also be on an advisory board.

The museum, to be located on U.S. 50-6, will be locally controlled. The museum idea has garnered the support of virtually everyone in southeastern Utah. Environmentalists and developers as diverse as Robert Redford and Cal Black have signed on as supporters.

The $1 million in state funds, along with $505,000 in matching local funds, should complete construction on the facility, which Bayless said will be comparable to the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyo.

Another $400,000 in community impact funds will be sought to develop and complete exhibits, as well as finish the project.

The land is being donated by Betsey Hatt.

Groundbreaking is scheduled for August, with an opening scheduled for June 1, 1989. Annual attendance is estimated to be almost 150,000 - most of whom will stop in Green River to buy gasoline, food, lodging and supplies. An estimated $2 million a year will be infused into the local economy because of the museum.

"We're in need of an economic boost here," Bayless said, noting that unemployment in Green River is running at 19 percent. "This could really help the entire community."

The museum will eventually convince visitors to stay in the area and explore the beauty of the San Rafael Swell, Canyonlands and other scenic wonders.

"Green River is a sleeping giant just beginning to wake up," Bayless said. "The time has come for the beauty of this area to be opened up to the millions of people going through every year."