CHICAGO -- The world may wear green on St. Paddy's Day. But Chicago holds the bragging
rights for ushering in this global Irish holiday by dyeing its central river
green -- bright emerald green -- before the annual St. Patrick's Day parade here.
Today, inspired by the presidential occupants' Chicago ties, the White House also jumped into the act by pouring green dye into the South and North lawn fountains
for the second year in a row.
the river turn green has been a Chicago ritual for nearly 50 years. This year
was a drizzly grey day, but that did not deter crowds of crazy celebrants
wearing tall green-striped hats and lots of green beads from coming downtown to
cheer from the Michigan Avenue bridge as 40 pounds of green dye were dumped into
the Chicago River just before the parade. Chicago gets a jump-start on other
cities by holding its annual ritual on the Saturday before March 17, rain or
The next best thing to being there may be a fun 60 second, stop-motion video
by a British professional photographer who captured the event from the landmark Wrigley Building. I watched from the nearby Trump Hotel tower as the bright neon green color quickly flowed
downstream and was reminded that Chicagoans have always done things
Unlike most rivers,
the 156-mile Chicago River
flows backwards, away from the mouth of Lake Michigan into which it
originally emptied. A late 19th
century civil engineering project
redirected the flow due west, then south toward the Mississippi basin and
eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. It was done for sanitation reasons, to help
control sewage and industrial pollution that had led locals to dub it "the
stinking river." (It's hard to imagine getting a project like that through
today's local, state and national regulatory hoops; in fact the river's flow later came
under legal scrutiny up to the U.S. Supreme Court and is regulated by a joint
I wondered how the green dye poured into the Chicago River passed environmental
muster. Turns out that things have
changed on that score too. Originally 100 pounds of fluorescent dye were used to turn
the river green for a whole week; now it's down to 40 pounds of vegetable dye, and the color
lasts for several hours.
The original idea
came from plumbers who used the fluorescent dye to check for illegal sewage discharges. In 1962, the dye
was used to turn the river green in honor of St. Patrick's Day, and a flamboyant local organizer named Steve Bailey once announced that he was changing the Chicago River into the Shannon River for a day.
A few years in, environmentalists attacked the use of the original dye because of potential hazards to wildlife in the river. Today vegetable dye is used, a supposedly secret formula that is claimed to be safe for the river's living organisms (presumably including the kayakers
and other human denizens watching the spectacle from the river perspective who could tumble overboard).
cities have followed suit in their own way: the waters in London's Trafalgar
Square fountain and Savannah's downtown fountains have been dyed green, and
last year First Lady Michelle Obama, a Chicago native, got the water in the
White House fountains
dyed green. But Chicago's giant green river feat still
stands head and shoulders above the rest.
New York rings in the New Year with the drop of its glittery Waterford Crystal
geodesic ball in Times Square, come dressed in green to Chicago for your St. Patrick's Day
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is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.