St. Paddy’s Day in Chicago

Yep, it’s true what they say: every St. Patrick’s Day, they dye the Chicago River bright green, using a powdered, vegetable-based dye that is harmless to fish. It’s orange when it goes in the water, and then turns, well, you’ll see. . .

I had to go downtown for shopping today, and when I saw that the usually empty Saturday morning train was full, and most of the people were wearing green, some with funny hats and shamrock-shaped antennae, I knew what I was in for. (Lots of them were already drunk by 10 a.m.; the parade follows the river dyeing.)

Here’s how they do it . The next three photos, sent by reader Joe Dickinson, were taken in 2006 and show the beginning of the dyeing, which starts at 9:15 promptly.


Photo: Joe Dickinson


Photo: Joe Dickinson


Photo: Joe Dickinson

Back to my photos: the result at 10:10 a.m.:

Green river

I mean, it’s really green!


It was madness: around the Michigan Avenue bridge there were mounted cops to keep people in line, and they were shouting to people on the bridge, “Selfie and then move on!” Here’s a couple with the proper spirit (note the man’s green hair):


The mounted cops themselves were a tourist attraction. Here’s an Asian tourist using that most nefarious of objects: a selfie stick:


Finally out of the crowds, I saw two antlike figures on a nearby building:


They were window washers, and not on a platform, but suspended by ropes hundreds of feet above the ground. What a job!



  1. Jeff Ryan
    Posted March 12, 2016 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Man, that makes me homesick.

  2. Randy Schenck
    Posted March 12, 2016 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    They do a parade and get pretty excited about St. Patrick’s over west of Chicago in Omaha. Don’t think they ever tried the green dye in the Missouri River – it would still be the color of mud. Or, by the time it turned green the water would be in Nebraska City.

  3. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 12, 2016 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Makes me remember that I haven’t been out in my ‘yak for years.

  4. DrBrydon
    Posted March 12, 2016 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Technically, I think it would be correct to say that they dye it greener. I’ve never seen the river anything but green.

  5. Posted March 12, 2016 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    You Chicagoans are awesome…. trumped the Drumpf yesterday.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted March 12, 2016 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      The way this is starting to develop, the republican convention may come with riots outside, like the one in ’68.

      • Posted March 13, 2016 at 9:48 am | Permalink

        It’s a worry, for sure. I hope some sanity will surface.

        • Diane G.
          Posted March 14, 2016 at 1:27 am | Permalink

          I dunno. Watching the Republican party self-destruct is exceedingly satisfying, and getting a group of young people stirred up enough to physically (as opposed to virtually) protest might bode well for a coming tilt to the left in the US.

  6. E.A. Blair
    Posted March 12, 2016 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Some people think of Saint Patrick as an Irish hero. I think of him as someone who helped destroy a vibrant pre-Christian culture with a repressive religion that is still the source of a lot of repression that is only now beginning to be rebelled against. Despite the fact that I come from a long line of Irish ancestors on my maternal side (the part of the family that’s related to Thomas Jefferson) I see no reason to celebrate 17 March.

    • kieran
      Posted March 12, 2016 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

      The “Celtic” church in Ireland pretty much kept Roman and Greek culture alive after the fall of Rome. Irish monastic schools were well thought of across Europe

      The “Celtic” church disagreed with Rome on a number of things which was why one of the excuses for the English invasion of Ireland had Vatican backing was the bring the Celtic church to heel. Also it helped that the pontiff was english as well.

    • Taz
      Posted March 12, 2016 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

      You actually think St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have something to do with St. Patrick?

    • Posted March 14, 2016 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      Not to mention, like his English counterpart, George, he is remembered for committing species-cide, at least according to legend.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 15, 2016 at 4:38 am | Permalink

        Just to split hairs, I believe George was only convicted of killing one dragon, not the entire species. 🙂


        • Posted March 15, 2016 at 11:25 am | Permalink

          I may misremembering, but the story I was told that I seem to recall was that George was responsible for killing the *last* dragon in England.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted March 15, 2016 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

            Well, if it was the last one, it wasn’t going to reproduce, was it? (Assuming dragons reproduced sexually).

            Mention of which, why did dragons always kidnap young eligible princesses? I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that one.


  7. Diane G.
    Posted March 12, 2016 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    What a beautiful horse! Cute pic in general!

    • Billy Bl.
      Posted March 12, 2016 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

      So refreshing to see a cop smiling, and on a horse!

  8. kieran
    Posted March 12, 2016 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for not using the abomination that is “patty’s day” it’s the visual equivalent of fingers nails on a chalk board for me.

  9. SRM
    Posted March 12, 2016 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Call me a curmudgeon.. but I think dyeing the river green, even if the dye is harmless, is an abomination. A typically stupid human excess. Might be of some use if to draw attention to of all the chemicals we add to natural waterways that cannot readily be discerned. As a dye-free alternative: drink your beer, drunkenly wonder why the normal colour of the water is what it is, and wax philosophic whether that in itself means anything. Or hey, just have a good time without thinking that requires dumping a bunch of shit into the river.
    P.S. Why this anyway? I thought St. Patrick’s Day was on the 17th.

    • SRM
      Posted March 12, 2016 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

      Incidentally, my comments were not meant for the host of this site, who might or might not like the practise himself, or for any other specific person… they were generic in nature.

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 12, 2016 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

        Just pipe down and drink your green beer!


        • SRM
          Posted March 12, 2016 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

          Aha, while I may sometimes be green with envy, or from over-indulgence, my beer will never be that colour :-}

          ..nor any river by my actions.

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 12, 2016 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

            I suppose I needn’t inquire about your eggs and ham, then.

            • SRM
              Posted March 12, 2016 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

              You need not.

              • Diane G.
                Posted March 12, 2016 at 7:14 pm | Permalink


        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 12, 2016 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

          And afterwards, you’re McDonald’s Shamrock Shake!

        • Taz
          Posted March 12, 2016 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

          I drink the same color beer on St. Patrick’s day as I do on any other day – black!

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 12, 2016 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

      “Why this anyway?”

      Probably easier to have a parade on a week-end. More convenient for the celebrants and rewarding for the barkeeps, too.

      • SRM
        Posted March 12, 2016 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

        Thanks. Was initially concerned since I have a friend whose birthday is St. Patricks’s Day and so this post made me run to calender to see if I had mistaken the day.

        • Diane G.
          Posted March 12, 2016 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

          I had your same reaction at first. Also, I always remembered my late mother’s birthday because it was the day after St. Paddy’s.

  10. Posted March 13, 2016 at 1:23 am | Permalink

    I’m confused. My calendar says St Paddys is 17 March, not 12. Is this the first shopping day of Xmas?

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 13, 2016 at 1:26 am | Permalink

      As I said above, “Probably easier to have a parade on a week-end. More convenient for the celebrants and rewarding for the barkeeps, too.”

      (It took me a while to realize that as well. And I suspect Thursday will also be a good day to own a bar. 😉 )

      • Posted March 13, 2016 at 5:08 am | Permalink

        Yes, Diane is right. Always on a weekend to allow drinking, parades, and celebrating.

        • Jeff Ryan
          Posted March 13, 2016 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

          When did that start? I remember them holding it on the actual St. Patrick’s Day, whether it was a weekday or not.

          Also, wasn’t there a scene in The Fugitive shot during a St. Patrick’s Day Parade?

  11. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted March 13, 2016 at 4:28 am | Permalink

    I thought ‘fluorescein’ but it seems they’ve changed the formulation. (Interesting that the replacement dye is coloured orange till added to water. Rhodamine B which is a fine olive-green powder gives an intense purple colour in water. If you get some powder in the air, you come out in tiny purple spots as invisible particles settle on your skin and react with sweat. Of course trying to wash it off just results in the purple stain spreading. Great fun for practical jokers).


  12. Matti K.
    Posted March 13, 2016 at 4:49 am | Permalink

    Interesting detail for an amateur geographist: the source of the Main Stem of the Chicago River is Lake Michigan, due to engineering in the beginning of last century.

    So the dye added ends up in River Missisippi, not lake Michigan.

  13. Mark R.
    Posted March 13, 2016 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Did anyone notice Harrison Ford in a green bowler?

    Is that too random?

  14. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted March 13, 2016 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    They were window washers, and not on a platform, but suspended by ropes hundreds of feet above the ground. What a job!

    “Dopes on ropes” is the common sobriquet applied by scaffolders displaced by this technique. Or, as I have several friends in that game “Industrial Roped Access”, to give it its proper name.
    Spectacular, but actually considerably safer (and much, much safer) than attaining the same access on scaffold. More marginal if there is a permanent platform installed, but having seen some sphincter-clenchers of rotten wire rope on “permanent” winch installations, the prospect of inspecting my own anchors and gear before going over the edge acquires a certain attraction.
    From the colour, I’d guess the dye is Fluroscein. I’d guess about a half kg for each metre of river they dye (@1ppm~~). It’s normally supplied in alcohol solution and does that orange to green transition as it solvates with water. I’m trying to remember it’s chemistry to justify the “vegetable-based” description. I guess some of its carbon atoms passed through a plant once. Before becoming oil. But it sure sounds more appealing than pouring “chemicals” into the water.
    Aside from that dig at Joe Public’s irrational response to “chemicals”, with this being an urban river, the concentration of the Fluoroscein in the green river is almost certainly lower than the concentration of urea (guess where from), ethanol (same source), Leptospirosis germs, and possibly cocaine. No wonder the smart kayaker are wearing immersion suits.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted March 13, 2016 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

      Damn. Changing thoughts in mid stream. Ind.Rope.Access is (generally) safer than building scaffold and much cheaper.

    • Jeff Ryan
      Posted March 13, 2016 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

      The Chicago River is nothing you want to take a dip in on even its cleanest of days.

      Trust me on this.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted March 25, 2016 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

        There is a relatively popular cave in the Mendip Hills with a rather wet and … atmospheric … chamber named “Cowsh Aven.” It is almost directly below the Farmer’s cow shed.
        And names like “Leptospirosis Crawl” lurk in the back of my head, though I can’t name the cave system immediately.
        I once knew a guy who had to do a dive to free a stuck valve in a sewage processing plant.
        I know where you’re coming from.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted March 26, 2016 at 7:30 am | Permalink

          Some decades back, I floated down a mile of the Orakei Main Sewer, inspecting it. This was a big sewer, 8’6″ high by 6’8″ wide. We wore full divers ‘dry suits’ (without the helmets). When I say ‘floated’, we used truck tyre inner tubes; the deeper bits where one could actually float were the pleasantest.

          But it wasn’t nearly as bad as one might think; ‘raw sewage’ is about 99% water (something to ponder when contemplating anything advertised as “99% pure”). And it was quite warm, at the end of the trip we were soaked inside our suits, not from leakage, from sweat. Still not an experience I volunteered to repeat.

          There are far, far worse things in the sewer system – pumping station wet wells, for example. I’ve never been in one of those, leastways not in the bottom ‘wet’ bit, thank Zeus.


          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted March 26, 2016 at 8:49 am | Permalink

            Hmmm, Zeus might not be the appropriate god to invoke. If you’d mentioned Jupiter, I’d have pulled “Cloaca” out into the daylight, but for a Greek equivalent …. where are our classicists?

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted March 26, 2016 at 8:55 am | Permalink

            To my (slight) surprise, Cloacina was a “Real Thing” :
            A short poem to Cloacina is typically attributed to Lord Byron:
            O Cloacina, Goddess of this place,
            Look on thy suppliants with a smiling face.
            Soft, yet cohesive let their offerings flow,
            Not rashly swift nor insolently slow.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted March 14, 2016 at 3:04 am | Permalink

      Actually, according to the article PCC linked to, they originally used fluorescein, but changed it to something vegetable-based for (alleged) environmental reasons.

      I totally agree about the irrational phobia over ‘chemicals’, by the way.


    • darrelle
      Posted March 14, 2016 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      When I was 20 or so I spent a summer repelling, and using swing-stages, down tall buildings like that making minor repairs in areas that could not reasonably be reached using swing-stages. It was a lot of fun.

      You have to take care not to get too comfortable though. You find yourself starting to do things without thinking, just as you would on the ground, that if there is a mishap would surely result in a long fall. For example jumping up onto a 30 cm wide parapet wall with a 500 foot (150 meters) fall on the other side and walking your lines / cables over to another position.

      I learned several important things. Such as always check you equipment for counterfeit bolts before using it, and NEVER trust anyone else to tie your line.

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