Chicago's Green River: This Odd Saint Patrick's Day Tradition Celebrates Its 60th Year

By Karen Harris

The Chicago River after members of Plumbers Local 130 U.A. poured environmentally safe orange powder, turning it green for Saint Patrick's Day on March 16, 2019. (Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

Everyone knows that if you don't wear green on Saint Patrick's Day, you're gonna get pinched, and even bodies of water get in on the pain-avoiding fun. In 2022, the Windy City celebrated the 60th year of turning the Chicago River into an Irish spring so verdant that it can be seen from passing airplanes.

Irish Pride

Since the middle of the 1800s, Irish immigrants have reshaped the business, media, and political culture of many U.S. cities but especially Chicago. Among them was Richard J. Daley, who served as mayor of Chicago for 21 years and came up with the idea to dress up the Chicago River for that most Irish of American holidays after hearing about the failure of the city of Savannah, Georgia to do the same.

Kayakers paddle along a bright green river, March 13, 2015. (Scott M. Liebenson/Wikimedia Commons)

Greening The River

At first, Mayor Daley wanted to one-up Savannah by dying a portion of Lake Michigan green, but he was told by the Chicago Plumbers Union's business manager, Stephen M. Baily, that color would disperse too quickly in such a large body of water. Baily suggested instead coloring the Chicago River with a bright green, annoyingly persistent but environmentally safe dye that plumbers at the time used to find leaks in pipes and ruin their clothing.

It took the event's organizers some time to determine the correct amount of dye to use. After the 1962 Saint Patrick's Day Parade, where the green river made its debut, it stayed that way for a full week. Now, the Chicago Plumbers Union dumps about 40 gallons of dye into the Chicago River, which sounds like a lot, but within four hours, the river returns to its original, non-Irish color, alongside many of the city's revelers.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.