Next to the wheel and the weed whacker, the bridge may be mankind's most inspirational accomplishment. A permanent structure that vaults across space, its very concept represents a leap of faith and its execution an act of bravery.

This symbol of adventure, change and escape has fascinated me since I was a child building Erector Set drawbridges that cranked open so my toy boats could sail from our living room to the kitchen. I became even more intrigued when, as a teenager, I watched workers stretch the magnificent Verrazano to the far reaches of Staten Island, anticipating access to an exotic land of wonder and enchantment. And though I still haven't overcome my disappointment on discovering that Staten Islanders sound and behave like my fellow Brooklynites, I've come to love bridges for other qualities: their soaring shapes, their mechanical intricacies, their varied and compelling constructions.

That's why I fell in love with Cleveland.

Sure, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a couple of stellar sports franchises have turned this buckle on the Rust Belt into the municipality of the moment, but Cleveland also happens to have the world's greatest variety of movable bridges. Of the 20 spans that cross the bustling Cuyahoga River, nearly half of them rise, swivel or arc open in some unusual fashion, their pinwheels, whirligigs and doodads exposed for all to see. As Cleveland bridge inspector Gene McKale says, "Taking an engineer to the Cuyahoga is like taking an artist to the Louvre."

The river, cut from sedimentary bedrock by ancient streams and glaciers, was aptly named Cahagaga or "crooked river" by the Mohawks. It is a winding switchback of a waterway that heads south from its source, then doubles back to flow north into Lake Erie. Technically, the six-mile section that passes through the heart of Cleveland is not a river at all, but a channel that requires constant dredging to maintain a navigable depth of 25 feet. The Cuyahoga is, after all, a working river. And while it isn't the world's longest, nor by any means the most beautiful, it can lay claim to being one of the more interesting rivers around.

Since actually catching fire in 1969 (thereby setting its only fireboat ablaze), it has risen phoenix-like from its own oil slick to become a mecca for pleasure craft of all types. (Ohio is fourth in the nation in boat ownership!) And its shoreline is dotted with diverse silhouettes, from soaring skylines to gritty gravel quarries.

But it's the bridges that make this river unique, and the best way to see them is from water level. So on a glorious Midwestern afternoon, I board the Goodtime III. This third-generation excursion ship is moored on Lake Erie's North Coast Harbor, a scant hundred yards from I. M. Pei's mausoleum for Jimi Hendrix's Stratocaster and Madonna's underpants. Nearly 1,000 of us -- several busloads of church groups and senior citizens, young couples with small children and I -- settle in for the two-hour, six-mile cruise, which begins with a brief cruise of the lake shore, then turns southeast at an old Coast Guard station into the Cuyahoga.

Here we encounter our first Iron Age wonder: Conrail's Iron Curtain Bridge. The black railway trestle ties the river's eastern shore to the railyards of Whiskey Island, a multi-use spit of land that earned its name when it served as an entry point for smuggled Canadian liquor during prohibition. Now its main industry is road salt, blasted daily from a 2,000-foot-deep mine that extends for more than two miles under Lake Erie.

Anticipating our approach, the trestle rises like a theater curtain under a proscenium arch of girders and beams that connect tall towers on either bank. Officially, this 1947 structure is a vertical lift bridge, one of several such mechanical masterpieces on the river that operate much like double-hung windows: Their roadways, rendered virtually weightless by counterweights housed in the towers, can be raised by electric motors generating as little as 75 horsepower. At the throw of an operator's switch, cables and pulleys spring into action and the span rises. On this particular bridge, the counterweights -- several-ton steel and concrete slabs -- ingeniously lower to block off the railway tracks on either shore.

And when this Curtain rises to its full height of 98 feet, all of Cleveland becomes a stage. Here, the riverbanks, known as the Flats, were once lined with docks for passenger steamers, shipping supply companies and repair outfits. Now, on busy evenings and weekends, the Holy Moses Water Taxi (named after the city's founder, Moses Cleaveland) shuttles revelers to and from the area's more than 30 clubs and restaurants, many with waterside patios and spectacular views of the river.

Two B & O Railroad jackknife bridges -- technically, single-leaf bascule bridges -- bracket the western bank of the Flats. Like half a drawbridge or some fantasy of Swiss Army engineering, bascules employ hinged counterweights to fold their entire spans nearly straight into the air.

These and other toylike bridges are dwarfed by a number of stationary, high-level skyways that arch overhead. The prettiest of those may be the sleek, cerulean Main Avenue Bridge we now sail under. Even so, it holds less interest than the exotic device we meet around the next bend, my favorite span on these waters, the 1901 Center Street Bridge.

Here, our ship issues a long and short horn blast that is echoed by the bridge's operator -- we've asked for, and he'll "give us the bridge." As he releases jacks under each end, we watch the roadway drop several inches to its natural height. Then the red, 113-foot span magically pivots toward us around its tower, like a merry-go-round.

As we travel past, we get an opportunity to study this contraption: It is a bobtail swing bridge, the only remaining swing bridge on the river. Its roadway, oddly perched on a geared, steel-plated cylinder, is longer on the river side than on the land side, and the entire span now hovers on its pedestal above a patch of grass, parallel to the waterway. It is a strange sight -- a bridge to nowhere -- but as we clear it, the cylinder grinds back into action and the roadway swings closed behind us and connects the banks once more.

Some scholars speculate that the ancient ancestors of modern-day Eskimos once inhabited these shores, followed much later by Erie tribesmen, the French, then the rest of us. Now, as the river starts a slow curve east, we see evidence of our current civilization's commercial endeavors: storage silos, light industry, a dry dock operation hauling boats with a huge forklift. The Cuyahoga today, is by turns, urban, industrial and rural.

You might want to take the opportunity to fortify yourself with a snack during this slow stretch, until you get to the next movable mechanism, the 1940 Columbus Road Bridge. This vertical lift bridge's 220-foot span is angled to correspond with the road on the west bank, an angle that it maintains as it rises. Unlike Conrail's lift bridge, the Columbus Road has an operator's booth suspended from the trestle above the roadway, so the controller has clear view in all directions.

The original bridge on this site was the first to span the Cuyahoga and its erection sparked the "Great Bridge War of 1837" between Cleveland on the east bank and Ohio City on the west. Some 50 men with rifles fought over tariffs and trade for one entire afternoon. Seventeen years later, Ohio City was incorporated into Cleveland. Problem solved.

At this point, the recorded narrator on the Goodtime begins an apparent sales pitch for the condominiums on a nearby hillside: "This unique complex offers 44 suites with no two being alike . . . " But before giving the Realtor's number, he switches to the description of a pipeline museum on the left.

Turning north again, we pass beneath another Conrail lift bridge, newer and sleeker than the last. Its roadway glides up so smoothly, it seems more like a guillotine than a bridge.

The shoreline here remains industrial, with a cement plant and its loading dock and an old B & O freight station on the left. But as the Goodtime curves east, we spot Terminal Tower, once the tallest building between New York and Chicago, looming behind a pair of vertical lift spans, literally side by side.

Conrail's dark gray bridge is no longer operational and was sold to the city for a dollar, but the Carter Road Bridge immediately next to it was practically rebuilt just three years ago. A replacement for the movable section was constructed on a barge nearby and, when finished, floated in, tied onto the stanchions and raised into position. The towers themselves were repaired with fresh steel where needed and the whole structure painted a sparkling blue -- especially appropriate since the Sherwin Williams Paint Co., a Cleveland institution, overlooks it from the eastern bank.

During the next stretch of the cruise, we get our best view of downtown. In the 1950s, Cleveland had been the seventh largest city in America, but by the end of the '70s, when the auto industry died back and took Cleveland's steel and manufacturing with it, the city became the first to default on its debts since the Depression. Now, 16 years later, Cleveland has miraculously renewed itself. And this resurrection is reflected in the glitzy, crystalline edifices that peek out between old limestone classics.

Now the river veers south into Collision Bend. Formerly the narrowest and most dangerous part of the river, it has been dredged into one of the tamest. Here we spy the Eagle Avenue Bridge. Though by now, vertical lift bridges have become commonplace, the Eagle Avenue and the West Third Street Bridge, a short way upriver, feature an interesting variant: exposed power and control cables suspended from the towers. (Admittedly, this is a small detail, but quite a significant one to us bridge fanciers.)

From here, the landscape becomes even more heavily industrial: a coal and coke storage yard, an oil depot, asphalt, concrete and chemical plants. And bridge-wise, there's still one more gem to uncover -- well, two, actually: the Twin Bridges.

These railroad spans are of the jackknife variety, but substantially different from the ones we've seen. They are scherzer rolling lift bridges, bascules built at the turn of the century with curved steel bases, like rocking-chair rockers, weighted in the rear to counterbalance the span. To open, these bridges roll back on their rockers until upright.

Standing as sentinels over the "turning basin" -- the terminus of the dredged channel -- their skeletal beams, girders and struts look much like my old Erector Set spans. Suddenly I'm 40 years younger and seated on the prow of a tiny Goodtime III as it comes about to make the long trip back to my living room. Ed Schneider is a Washington writer. CAPTION: WAYS & MEANS

Throughout 1996, Cleveland commemorates the 200th anniversary of its founding by Moses Cleaveland, a surveyor who left after three months and never returned. The pinnacle of the festivities will be a river and lakefront festival July 19-22. Of particular interest to bridge aficionados, the city will be affixing dramatic and colorful lighting on most of the Cuyahoga bridges, turning the already remarkable waterway into a permanent, spectacular display of engineering ingenuity. For more information, call the Cleveland Bicentennial Commission, 216-687-1996. GETTING THERE: Southwest Air has the least expensive nonstop round-trip fares to Cleveland from BWI: a 14-day advance fare of $96, with restrictions. WHERE TO STAY: The Ritz-Carlton (1515 W. Third St., 216-623-1300) has probably the best views of the river and the Flats. Rooms start at $135 double. Other nearby hotels: Marriott Society Center (127 Public Square, 216-696-9200), Stouffer Renaissance (24 Public Square, 216-696-5600), Radisson Plaza (1701 E. 12th St., 216-523-8000), Sheraton City Center (777 St. Clair Ave., 216-771-7600) and Holiday Inn Lakeside City Center (1111 Lakeside Ave, 216-241-5100). WHERE TO EAT: The Watermark Restaurant (1250 Old River Rd. in the Flats, 216-241-1600) has a spectacular view from the main dining room and especially outside on the heated patio, from which you can see eight of the Cuyahoga's bridges. Sammy's (1400 W. 10th St. in the Flats, 216-523-5560) is a well-respected establishment with both river and skyline views. The Nautica Entertainment Complex (1231 Main Ave.) on the west side of the Flats houses numerous bars, restaurants and clubs. BOAT TOURS AND CHARTERS: To cross the Cuyahoga from one side of the Flats to the other, contact the Holy Moses Water Taxi, 216-999-1625. Among the companies offering boat tours and charters on the Cuyahoga:

Goodtime III, 216-861-5110.

Nautica Queen, 216-696-8888.

River Queen, 216-771-4500.

Lolly the Trolley, 216-771-4484.

Aqua Limo Yacht Charters, 216-243-5141. BEYOND BRIDGES: You might want to check out the attractions that already exist on Cleveland's downtown lakefront -- and those that will: At the North Coast Harbor at the East Ninth Street Pier: * The Great Lakes Historical Society's Steamship William G. Mather Ship Museum (216-574-6262), a retired, 618-foot ore carrier with exhibits and tours (May through October) on the maritime history of the Great Lakes. Adjacent to the Mather Museum, the society also offers tours of the World War II submarine, USS Cod. * The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1 Key Plaza, 216-781-7625 or 1-800-349-7625). You've heard the music, you've seen the hype.

* The Great Lakes Science Center and an IMAX theater, adjacent to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, scheduled to open July 19. West of the North Coast Harbor: * Cleveland Stadium (W. Third Street and Lakeside Avenue), potential former home of the beloved Cleveland Browns football team. Seats 80,000. On the lake side of the stadium are the Donald Gray Gardens, the last remnant of the Great Lakes Exposition of 1936-1937. INFORMATION: Convention & Visitors Bureau of Greater Cleveland, 3100 Terminal Tower, 50 Public Square, Cleveland, Ohio 44113-2290, 1-800-321-1001. CAPTION: Cleveland's B&O jackknife bridge and the sleek Main Avenue Bridge. CAPTION: Cleveland's Eagle Avenue Bridge features exposed power and control cables suspended from the towers. CAPTION: An architectural detail from Cleveland's 1932 Hope Memorial Bridge, left, and the 1901 Center Street Bridge, the only remaining swing bridge on the Cuyahoga River. CAPTION: CLEVELAND'S RIVER BRIDGES 1. Iron Curtain Bridge 2. B&O Railroad jacknife bridges(2) 3. Main Ave. Bridge 4. Center St. Bridge 5. Columbus Rd. Bridge 6. Conrail lift bridge 7. Carter Rd. Bridge 8. Eagle Ave. Bridge 9. West 3rd St. Bridge 10. Twin Bridges (This graphic was not available)