Chicago River Turns Green For St. Patrick’s Day — But Is It The Right Color?

The Chicago River is turning green. Every year on St. Patrick’s Day, the famous Chicago river’s rather grayish water turns bright green. Apparently, it is the unrelenting and untiring efforts of two families that allows one of America’s greatest cities to show its love to Ireland and its traditions.

For more than 50 years now, the Chicago River has been dyed bright green to commemorate St. Patrick’s Day. The green, which resembles the gooey slime that’s been featured on children’s shows of Nickelodeon or in the movie Ghostbusters, has been the doing of two families, reports the Chicago Tribune. The Butler and Rowan families have been openly coloring the river, and so far, no other person outside the clans has dared or been allowed to undertake the task of rather mammoth proportions.

The Chicago River turning green easily upstages any of the attempts by mere mortals to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. To dye the river, a large boat chugs up and down flinging the emerald dye, which comes from an environmentally safe orange powder, reported Metro. Although the families that color the river claim the dye is made from oranges, none of the members have actually revealed the true recipe. The only visible confirmation comes from the river, which, near instantaneously, takes on a bright green hue. The color does appear completely unnatural but still manages to look festive.


Each year, the crew manages to turn the Chicago River green by shaking the orange powder into the river using industrial scale shifters. There are a couple of boats, each manned by a six-member crew. No one outside the family, except by marriage, is allowed to join in the fun. Only those related to Mike Butler or Tom Rowan have ever manned the speedboats and been in charge of sprinkling the orange powder.

While four men on the main boat race ahead sprinkling the orange powder, others give chase, stirring up the river to quickly spread it. For many years, the joyful tradition has been sponsored by the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Union. Interestingly, the mammoth undertaking has only once been replicated elsewhere. At the end of the 20th century, the crew headed to Dublin and successfully dyed the Liffey River.

The speedboats are expected to be in the Chicago River by 9 a.m. Informally, it is the dyeing of the river that kicks off the city’s celebrations. Just like every year, thousands of spectators are expected to line the riverside to get a glimpse of the larger-than-life process. The families have lovingly christened the orange powder as “leprechaun dust.” Currently, three generation of male members man the speedboats. Meanwhile, the women from the families continue the tradition on land. The members serve Irish coffee and hot chocolate on the Riverwalk at Lower Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue for relatives and friends.

Despite the Chicago River turning green and people the world over wearing green to celebrate the St. Patrick’s Day, the color isn’t what truly represents the occasion. Green is the national color of Ireland. While it is commonly associated with Saint Patrick’s Day, the true color is blue. Multiple hues and shades of blue have come to represent the holiday, because it was the color of the robes that was depicted in Irish mythology. The tradition of green representing St. Patrick’s Day began in the 1640s. The green, in fact, has a very sad history associated with it and stems from a song title. “The Wearing of the Green” is an Irish street ballad lamenting the repression of supporters of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. The sad song laments the persecution of United Irishmen, a group who rebelled against British rule in 1798 for wearing green.

Despite the rather skewed association, St. Patrick’s Day will have the Chicago River turn green.

[Photo by Jeff Roberson/AP Images]