March 16, 2011

The Greening of the Chicago River




CAROLYN’S COMPOSITIONS is now located at Carolyn’s Online Magazine.



     “I wonder if they’re going to color the Chicago River green this year.”

The question arose in a conversation while my husband Monte and I were visiting Chicago between March 2 and March 7, 2011. Unfortunately, I cannot recall when the conversation occurred, nor can I remember with whom.

We were in the Chicago area because my husband, Monte, had tickets to the Big Ten wrestling matches held during the weekend at his alma mater, Northwestern University. I had agreed to travel with him, taking advantage of the opportunity to meet my newly discovered sister, who lived near the University.

     I first saw the river while we explored downtown Chicago on March 7. While there, we walked over the bridge across the Chicago River. In light of the conversation about the greening of the river, I wondered if it would become green this St. Patrick’s Day.

Upon our arrival home, while leafing through our newspapers, a headline leapt out at me: Chief Leprechaun. The subtitle was: Mike butler and crew green the Chicago River.


     With bagpipes wailing Irish tunes and green-clad celebrants watching from the banks of the Chicago River in downtown Chicago, Mike Butler’s two-boat crew slams over the choppy waves, scattering a fine orange powder overboard. In their wake, the murky brown water turns yellow, then lime, and finally a vibrant emerald green, inspiring cheers from thousands of onlookers assembled for Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Chicagoans attribute the transformation to a bit of Irish magic, as well as to the gregarious Butler, 75, who for nearly four decades has colored the Windy City’s river for the Irish-inspired holiday. From the banks of the river, Butler coordinates the spectacle while keeping the dye’s “recipe” top secret, making Chicago the only city in the world to celebrate St. Patty’s Day by greening a major river.

“We want our parade to be different from everyone else’s,” says Butler, of Darien, Ill. (pop. 22,860), a bedroom community of Chicago…

     The tradition began in 1961 when the union’s then-general manager, Stephen J. Bailey, discovered that plumbers used green dye to trace pollution sources into the river. He recognized the dye’s potential for Chicago, known for its large St. Patrick’s celebration on the Saturday of or before March 17.
“We learned how to do it the hard way,” says Butler, who was deputy of the Chicago Port Authority in 1974 when he joined the crew. At first, the team used 100 pounds of aircraft rescue dye that colored the river for a week, and environmentalists objected to its oil base. Using food coloring proved ineffective, while shooting the dye into the river with fireboat water guns colored cars on a nearby expressway.
Today, crewmen use ordinary flour sifters to distribute 40 pounds of powder that is mixed into the water by the boats’ outboard motors. The dye colors the water for about 24 hours and has been tested and found environmentally safe by independent chemists.
“After 40 years, we’ve got it down pat,” Butler declares.*


     The article answers many questions that arise about the greening of the Chicago River.

Unfortunately, we had to head back to Southwestern Pennsylvania after exploring, ever so briefly, the downtown Chicago area. On our way out, we stopped briefly in Darien, Illinois , to visit a former classmate of Monte’s. We were unaware that the man who is responsible for the greening of the Chicago River lived in that very town.

The 2011 St. Patrick’s Day parade in Chicago is already over, having been scheduled for March 12. I assume the river was greened for the occasion.

No such luck of the Irish to have the runs and streams of the Ligonier Valley (Pennsylvania) greened up on March 17, the official St. Patrick’s day. But I’m certain the spirit of the Irish will be displayed in other ways.

For those of you with the Irish green running through your veins, and for those of you unlucky enough to lack this green, may I wish you the luck of the Irish today!






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1 Comment »

  1. […] A Chance Encounter With a Chicago Writer , Chicago’s Cloud Gate: a.k.a. “The Bean” , The Greening of the Chicago River […]

    Pingback by Rethink Church Lenten Photos Week 2 | Carolyn's Online Magazine — February 26, 2015 @ 1:35 am | Reply

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