It is said that every Chicagoan is Irish on St. Patrick's Day. Irish-Americans have held the reigns of city government in Chicago for almost a full century, and as a result, St. Patrick's Day is essentially a civic holiday here. Of course, we celebrate in all the requisite ways -- green beer, green bagels, corned beef and potatoes, raucous public drunkenness, and, up until this year, two separate parades -- but Chicago boasts one way of marking the holiday that is uniquely ours. You see, Chicagoans love to dump stuff in the Chicago River, and St. Patrick's Day is no exception. In fact, it is the perfect excuse to dye our river green.
Please note that I did absolutely no color enhancing of this photo. They get the river that green.
The greening of the river is a Chicago tradition that dates back to the age of that most legendary of Chicago politicians, Richard J. Daley. However, he bears little involvement in the story of its inception, as the dyeing of the river is actually a privately-sponsored event, devised and executed by a local plumbers' union. Legend has it that one day, back in 1961, a plumber was using a special dye to detect the source of waste water that was leaking into the Chicago River. When he discovered that the dye was reacting with the river water to turn it a vibrant shade of green, he went to his supervisor and the two of them hatched a plan to dye the entire river green for St. Patrick's Day. They conferred with the city, got its approval, and a tradition was born.
It was actually kind of a miserable, foggy day, but the lack of sunlight made the river appear even more phosphorescent.
Over the years, the plumbers' union has tinkered with the formulation. In the early days of the river dyeing, they would add so much dye that the river would be green for nearly an entire week. Over time, the amount has been reduced to keep the river green for just a day, and the dye itself has been changed to a more environmentally-friendly formulation. Interestingly, the dye itself is bright orange, and it only turns green when it mixes with the water. The dye is distributed by a crew on a loaned fire rescue boat, whose white coveralls are largely orange by the time the spectacle is completed. That crew is followed by two other volunteers in a motorboat, who run circles and zigzags through the water to churn it up and distribute the dye, turning the river into a vibrant carpet of green.
Lauren and I, with my festive novelty headband.
Shockingly, despite my 21 years of living in Chicago, I had never gone to watch the dyeing of the river before, so I met up with Lauren to take in the spectacle. Despite the horrendous weather, there was actually a rather sizable crowd accumulated along the banks of the river, many of whom were clad in elaborate green costumes, face paint, and wigs. Chicagoans are hardcore about their annual day of being honorary Irishmen! Lauren and I might have adopted a more low-key approach to the event, but we were nonetheless impressed by the river dyeing. It really turns a phenomenal shade of neon green, slightly unnerving though it may be. I might not want to think too hard about the ramifications of all that dye (I'll just take their word for it that it's environmentally sound), but it gives me no small amount of joy to have witnessed such a unique piece of Chicagocana this weekend...