A green river ran through it

Publish Date: 
Mar 18, 2014
By Karen Widdicombe

ON SATURDAY, March 15, the Chicago River was once again dyed a bright shamrock green.  You might wonder how this 43-year-old tradition came about.

In early December 1961, Steve Bailey, business manager of the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local Union 110 office as well as chairman of the downtown Chicago Loop parade and a dyed-in-the-wool (pun intended) Irish enthusiast, was sitting in his office mulling over plans for the 1962 St. Patrick's Day Parade for the following March.

One of the plumbers dropped in to see him about a building that had been ordered to discontinue emptying waste materials into the Chicago River. This plumber had been trying to find the source of the discharge by pouring a dye into various openings of the waste system and then checking at the river's edge to see whether or not the dye appeared.

Bailey took one look at the bright shamrock green dye stains all over the plumber’s coveralls and picked up the phone to call Capt. Manley, the port director.  “Any chance we could dye the river green for St. Pat’s Day?” he asked. 

That first year, a hundred pounds of a fluorescent dye compound -- used by the military in rescue operations -- was stirred into the water... and the river stayed green for a week.  The following year, the amount was dropped to 50 lbs., which kept the river green for three days.  Finally, it was determined that 25 lbs of the dye would do the trick for a day. 

Beginning in 1966, the parade committee switched to a vegetable dye that produced the same green color for four or five hours and is still used to this day. 

Our Dealer Expo ad on this page shows Top 100 Dealer Bob Weaver on a personal watercraft -- we've superimposed him, with his permission, on a shot of the green-dyed Chicago River, right in downtown Chicago.

Dealer Expo and the National Dealer Symposium will be held Dec. 4-7 at McCormick West in downtown Chicago. For more information, visit www.dealerexpo.com.