From Louisiana to Minnesota, the shores of the Mississippi River echo with the names of heroes who have left their mark on its storied miles: Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, French adventurers Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet, and, of course, Mark Twain. To that list, add the name of Chad Pregracke, an irrepressible 26-year-old who has taken it upon himself to rid the river of the unsightly garbage that lines its banks.
Over the last four years, Pregracke has mobilized thousands of volunteers in 42 river communities to join him in his quest, which at last count had wrenched 500 tons of debris from the Big Muddy and its tributaries.
Pregracke grew up along the Mississippi River in East Moline, Ill., (pop. 20,299). As a boy, he worked on the river with his father as a commercial fisherman and shell diver and saw firsthand how it had become a dumping ground.
In 1997, Pregracke decided to do something about all the garbage. He created the Mississippi River Beautification and Restoration Project. With grant money from Alcoa Corp., he and community volunteers began plying the river on a flat-bottomed boat, hauling out discarded tires, refrigerators, 10-gallon drums, stoves, gas grills, deck chairs, and any other debris they could find.
During that first year, working alone or with a few friends, Pregracke cleaned more than 100 miles of shoreline and removed 45,000 pounds of debris, most of which was loaded onto barges and sent to the Quad Cities in Illinois and Iowa for recycling.
Pregracke, who receives a $25,000 annual salary from the nonprofit corporation he created, then decided to enlist the help of other people along the river. I thought it would be kind of cool to get others involved, he recalls.
In 1998, Pregracke organized his first community cleanup, expanded the cleanup area 900 miles from St. Louis to Guttenburg, Iowa, and collected about 400,000 pounds of garbage.
One of the first towns Pregracke enlisted was Burlington, Iowa. Len Williams was a member of the local Rotary Club when Pregracke solicited the service group for a financial donation to underwrite his crusade. Williams not only approved the donation but also pledged a crew of able-bodied workers for a local cleanup day.
We had about 25 volunteers who went out with Chad in 1999, Williams recalls. We cleaned a couple of miles of shoreline. It really went over well.
So well, in fact, that last August, Williams enlisted the help of other civic organizationsthe Kiwanis, Lions, and Optimist clubsand recruited more than 100 volunteers who scoured 10 miles of riverbank in Illinois and Iowa.
It really did wake up the community to something that had been forgotten, Williams says. When you are used to seeing a lot of trash, people take it for granted. I think that the cleanup day raised a public awareness of what can be done.
Joe Hearn of Dubuque, Iowa, also experienced the inspirational effects of Pregrackes mission during his communitys cleanup day in July 2000. We were amazed at how much we collected. Hearn says. It raised the awareness that the Mississippi River gives so much to the Dubuque area, we should be giving something back.
It was extremely hot, we got awfully dirty, and there were a lot of bugs, he adds. But that didnt deter peoples enthusiasm.
Nor has a flood of media attention, awards, or being the focus of a television documentary distracted Pregracke from his mission. This spring, Pregracke moved on to the Ohio River, where he is continuing his cleanup work with help from people who live along its banks.