In 1962, Chicago city workers dumped 100 pounds of dye into the river that flows through downtown Chicago. It left the river emerald green for a whole week, establishing an annual tradition. Last weekend, the city celebrated the 60th anniversary of the event.
Dyeing the Chicago River has become synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the United States, but where did the tradition come from?
The green dye was originally part of the city’s effort to clean up the riverbanks, which had long been a dumping ground for Chicago’s garbage. So much so that Upton Sinclair mentioned one of the river’s tributaries, Bubbly Creek, in his famous novel The jungle.
Bubbly Creek got its name from the bubbles of methane gas that periodically rose to the surface due to discarded waste from a large nearby slaughterhouse.
As the city grew larger, efforts to clean up the river increased, including the construction of waste treatment plants and even a canal that permanently reversed the river’s flow, bringing clean water from Lake Michigan to the estuary.
When Richard J. Daley took office as mayor of Chicago in 1955, he was determined to develop the riverfront and tasked city workers with finding out where the sewage was coming from. They used the green dye to identify the source of the waste.
Although Daley originally suggested turning part of Lake Michigan green to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, he was persuaded by his friend Stephen M. Bailey, executive director of the Chicago Plumbers Union, to dye the more manageable Chicago River one instead Tradition was born.
The dye used was originally an oil based product but has since been changed to a powder which is ironically orange and the formula is a closely guarded secret.
“The Illinois EPA has never required a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, so there is no way of knowing what the dye is or if it is harmless,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River , in a statement to NPR.
In the past, the city has experimented with ways to disperse the powder, with Chicago City Councilman Edward Burke telling NPR in 2013, “We used fire extinguishers at one point because we thought it would help disperse it more quickly.” Instead, to live up to its namesake, The Windy City, the powder covered the Wrigley Building and more than 100 cars.
Today the orange powder is brought out by two motor boats. One dumps the powder and the other stirs the water, turning the river completely green in minutes.
And although the dye used in the river is said to be harmless, advocacy groups like the Friends of the Chicago River are concerned the practice encourages copycats who may use unauthorized dyes on other stretches of the river.
The group had hoped to avoid what has become an annual unauthorized staining of the Chicago River’s northern branch by announcing that Conservation Police would be patrolling the area, but to no avail. The North Branch was bright green a day after the city’s sanctioned event.
“Coloring the Chicago River green perpetuates the idea that it can be treated however anyone wants,” Frisbie said. “Now more than ever our land and waterways need protection and our traditions must evolve to reflect that.”
Other U.S. cities, including San Antonio, Tampa, and Indianapolis, have since begun dyeing their own rivers and canals.
And despite protests from environmental groups, coloring the Chicago River seems to be going nowhere. Thousands braved the cold last weekend to celebrate and witness the annual tradition.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.