St. Patrick`s Day is a big event in the Windy City. Since 1962, Chicago has dyed the river green to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, which happens the Saturday before the holiday, unless St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Saturday then the river is dyed that day. Around 400,000 people come to watch this transformation and this year the event took place on March 16 at 9 am followed by the parade at 12 pm. However, while many know about the river and its color transformation, there is a bit of mystery around the dye itself.
Originally, the dye was approved by the Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley to trace illegal substances polluting the river. Stephen Bailey, a friend of Daley, noticed the color of a worker’s coveralls after a day working to find the source of pollutants in the Chicago River. They turned emerald green and he was instantly inspired. Daley had proposed to dye Lake Michigan, but Bailey suggested the river and this was accepted. He had the idea to use the dye to change the color of the entire river and it ended up being a success, however, it was discovered that the dye used to find pollutants was made with oil-based fluorescein. The Environmental Protection Agency prohibited the use of the fluorescein to help with dyeing the river green as the chemical had negative effects on the river. As a result, in 1966 organizers started using a vegetable-based dye, which was in the form of a powder to keep from harming the river.
The Plumbers Union Local 130 is still in charge of changing the river’s color today. It takes 40 pounds of this orange powder dye to accomplish this feat. Those spreading the color use sifters to disperse it into the moving water below. It turns out that there isn’t much information on the secret ingredients of the dye itself as they are kept secret by people such as Tom Rowan and Michael Butler, members of families that have been a part of this tradition for years. The powder is poured into the river from a larger boat. They then work to churn it into the water using a couple of smaller boats, making the water an emerald green color. The dye is put into the river by the Michigan Avenue bridge, renamed the DuSable Bridge in 2010. It takes about 45 minutes for the whole river to become a spectacular green and the color now lasts around five hours or longer, depending on winds and currents. Spectators are able to watch the magic happen from the bridge or either side of the river along Upper and Lower Wacker Drive.
If you couldn’t make it this year, don’t forget to put the river dyeing down on your calendar for 2020. Whether you watch the parade, see the water swirling green or hit up some of the pubs in the area, you won’t want to miss this experience. Take a trip, even if it is just for the day and see the magic happen.
Michelle Ried is a senior studying professional writing with a focus in editing and Spanish. When she’s not working, she is spending time with her friends, family, camera, or watching Netflix with her three favorite felines. She can be found on Instagram at @michelles_picture_stash.
All photos by Steve Hardy, taken from Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/ruffryd/albums/72157629632202509