Why they started dyeing the Chicago River green: NPR
John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
In 1962, Chicago city workers dumped 100 pounds of dye into the river that ran through downtown Chicago. He left the emerald green river for an entire week and started an annual tradition. The city celebrated the 60th anniversary of the event last weekend.
The Chicago River Dye has become synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the United States, but where did this tradition come from?
The green dye was originally part of the city’s efforts to clean up riverfront areas, which had long been a dumping ground for Chicago’s trash. So much so that Upton Sinclair mentioned one of the river’s tributaries, Bubbly Creek, in his famous novel The jungle.
Bubbly Creek gets its name from the bubbles of methane gas that regularly rose to the surface from waste dumped by a large slaughterhouse nearby.
As the city grew, efforts to clean up the river increased, including the construction of waste treatment plants and even a canal that permanently reversed the flow of the river, bringing water clean from Lake Michigan to the mouth of the river.
When Richard J. Daley took office as mayor of Chicago in 1955, he was determined to develop the waterfront and tasked city workers with finding where the sewage was coming from. They used the green dye to help identify the source of the waste.
Although Daley originally proposed to dye part of Lake Michigan green to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, he was persuaded by his friend Stephen M. Bailey, who was the business manager of the Chicago Plumbers Union, to instead dye it. manageable size of the Chicago River and a tradition was born.
The dye used was originally an oil-based product, but has since been changed to a power, which ironically is 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’s no way to tell what the dye is or if it’s harmless,” Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, said in a statement. at NPR.
In the past, the city has experimented with ways to distribute the powder, with Chicago Alderman Edward Burke telling NPR in 2013, “Once we used fire extinguishers, thinking that would help dissipate it faster.” True to its namesake, The Windy City, powder covered the Wrigley Building and over 100 cars instead.
Today the orange powder is spread by two motorboats. 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 such as the Friends of the Chicago River worry the practice could encourage copycats who might use unapproved dye in other parts of the river.
Nam Y. Huh/AP
The group had hoped to avoid what became an annual unauthorized dyeing of the North Fork of the Chicago River by announcing that Conservation Police would patrol the area, but to no avail. The North Branch was bright green a day after the city-sanctioned event.
“Dying the Chicago River green continues the idea that it can be treated as anyone wishes,” Frisbie said. “Now more than ever, our lands and waterways need protection and our traditions must evolve to reflect this.”
Other US cities, including San Antonio, Tampa and Indianapolis, have since started dyeing their own rivers and canals.
And regardless of protests from environmental groups, the Chicago River Dye seems to be going nowhere. Thousands of people braved the cold last weekend to celebrate and witness the annual tradition.