5 things to know about dyeing the Chicago River green

It's a Chicago tradition: On Saturday, a stretch of river that slices through downtown will turn greener than the frat-boy vomit on Wacker Drive. Here are five things to know about the Chicago tradition that you can use to impress your St. Patrick’s Day brunch buddies:

  1. Don’t even bother asking what the dye is made of. “We’re not going to tell you,” said Tom Rowan, who for decades has been on the team that dyes the river. “They’ve been trying for years.” What Rowan will say is that the dye - which others say is vegetable based - is orange until it hits the water, when it turns that distinctive electric green. And while nobody will say what the dye is composed of, Rowan insists it is “1,000 percent harmless.”
  2. Environmental groups don’t challenge the dye’s safety – the river has bigger problems than one day of dye, said Josh Mogerman, a spokesman for the National Resources Defense Council. “It is a waterway that has all sorts of really big issues that we focus on a lot more than vegetable dye going in on one day,” he said. Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, is most concerned with the message that the tradition sends—it makes the river seem like an object of kitsch rather than part of a real ecosystem, she said. “I think [it] sends a message to people that the river is not alive,” she said. “Can you imagine there’s actually beavers living there? Because there are. You would never do that to a beaver. … Dyeing the river green does not respect that resource.”
  3. It’s a family affair. Rowan’s father helped begin the river-dyeing tradition in the early 1960s along with another local family, the Butlers. Now, Rowan’s nephew rides the boat with him, along with his younger brother. “Besides being a tradition with St. Patrick’s Day, it’s a tradition with the Rowan and Butler families,” he said. “Tradition is a very important thing, and particularly with Irish descendants.”
  4. Mayor Richard J. Daley’s original plan supposedly was to dye Lake Michigan—not the river. “He was a powerful man, but even he couldn’t swing that,” Rowan said. “The next best thing was dyeing the river green.” Frisbie said she had never heard of the original plan to dye the lake, but she wasn’t surprised, saying, “People do think big in Chicago, don’t they?”
  5. There are occupational hazards to dyeing the river. For one thing, Rowan said, “You have no idea how cold you get on the river at 7 o’clock in the morning in March.” One year, a bunch of kids tossed pennies at him—and every year, the orange dye stains his fingernails. “I’m sure people think, ‘God, that guy smokes a lot!’” he said.
Copyright © 2016, RedEye