How One Man Changed Charles River for the Better


Floating Barbie dolls, a dead mouse wrapped in cloth, and a human leg — these are just a few of the more remarkable items that have been fished out of the Charles River over the past 15 years. More remarkable, however, is the story of how they came to be fished out in the first place.

Fifteen years ago, after retiring from his corporate career, a Boston man named Tom McNichol couldn’t help but notice that the Charles River was becoming clogged with trash.

Rather than simply shaking his head in dismay and moving on to enjoying his retirement, McNichol decided to do something about it.

A Man with a Plan

Cindy Brown, from Boston Duck Tours, explains how McNichol almost single-handedly began to change the face of the Charles River.

“He started literally going up and down the river with pool skimmers, picking up trash,” she says. “Some days he would get 10 bags.” Day after day, McNichol would get into his boat — known as the Charles River Clean Up Boat — and spend hours picking floating garbage from the river. He recruited some friends, received donations from local businesses (like Brown’s Boston Duck Tours) and continued this same simple process for more than a decade.

“Steadily the schedule grew,” Brown says. “Nowadays, we go out in May, June, July, August and September, four days a week.” And although Brown says that she believes the overall amount of trash has declined over the years due to increased environmental awareness, there’s still enough to keep the boat running day after day — even if McNichol can’t be the one driving it anymore.

Tom McNichol made it his mission to clean the Charles River. Photo: Adobe Stock

Sadly, two years ago, McNichol was diagnosed with cancer. He died not long after, and Brown and her friends have taken over the Clean Up Boat in the years since, after promising McNichol that they’d continue his work after he was gone.

“We could assure him that all this work that he’d done for 14 years could continue and that it would get even better,” Brown says. Although McNichol did receive several awards for his work with the Clean Up Boat during his life, Brown wishes he’d gotten more recognition. He was also never able to see how many people would become involved in the effort, like a group of students at Boston University who worked alongside Brown to put together a new website, social media, newsletter and volunteer schedule.

Taking Up the Mantle

Now president of the Charles River Clean Up Boat organization, Cindy and her 8-year-old son continue the tradition McNichol started. Together, they and a team of volunteers take turns heading out onto the Charles River with nothing more than a few pool skimmers, a hook and two barrels (one for recyclables, one for trash).

The simplicity of their efforts is part of what makes this story incredible. With an annual operating budget of less than $50,000, Brown says that the boat can serve as an example to other nonprofits. “It probably highlights the waste in so many other companies and nonprofits that have so much overhead, admin fees, approvals, etc.,” she explains. “All of that can take away from the mission at hand.”

She adds that though the task seemed insurmountable at first, McNichol was undeterred. His example can serve as an inspiration to others. “The river is huge, it’s miles long and it can be daunting, but one man and his vision got it done,” she says. “It just goes to show how much you can accomplish with so little.”

Boston’s Charles River is cleaner thanks to the Clean Up Boat. Photo: Adobe Stock

Becoming More Conscious

Working with the Clean Up Boat has changed how Brown lives her life. “A lot of the time after a big rain, we’ll notice that the river is much dirtier [with] plastic bags, a ton of bottles — empty bottles of water, liquor, Gatorade or soda — lots of straws,” she says. “You see the same things over and over again.”

Brown switched to a reusable bottle instead of disposable ones, and was a vocal proponent of Boston’s recent bag ban, in large part because of how many bags she has picked out of the Charles River.

“It’s made me so much more conscious as a person,” she says. “I am so much more aware of how much trash ends up in the water, and I’ve become a smarter consumer.”

Above all, Brown urges everyone to take note of McNichol’s legacy, and the lessons he taught.

“No one is too small; no project is too big that you can’t do it,” she says. “Who would have thought that one person could clean up the whole Charles River? If you see something in your own community that you want to fix, it’s not as daunting as it might seem. This retired gentleman had an idea and now the river is clean because of him.”

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Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.