Dyeing Chicago River Green Has History Of Trial And Error

Host Scott Simon talks to Chicago Alderman Edward Burke about the origins and challenges of the city's tradition of dyeing the river green for St. Patrick's Day.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Chicago's St. Patrick's Day parade takes place today which means the Chicago River will be green, I mean, even greener than usual. The river is colored green, of course, every year on this day. How did that get started? We're joined now by the dean of Chicago's city council, Alderman Edward Burke of the 14th Ward, who's has been on the council for more than 40 years. Alderman, thanks so much for being with us.

ALDERMAN EDWARD BURKE: Thanks for inviting me and Happy St. Patrick's Day.

SIMON: And Happy St. Patrick's Day to you, Alderman. And Tom Rowan, a member of your staff, is there, too, right?

BURKE: He is.

SIMON: We will talk to Mr. Rowan, too, in a minute. How did this whole thing get started?

BURKE: Mayor Daley had a vision to dye Lake Michigan green.

(LAUGHTER)

BURKE: But after some of his aides researched the question, they were able to persuade him that perhaps the Chicago River would be a more likely target. So, 51 years ago, a small crew, including Tom's father, started experimenting with dyeing the river green.

SIMON: Hmm. Tom, you're out there every year?

TOM ROWAN: Every year. Last year was our 50th anniversary, and I've been doing it for 50 years.

SIMON: My gosh, congratulations. I'm so glad that we can speak with you, and has the process changed much over the years?

BURKE: When we first tried to get going, there were different methods we tried. One time we used fire extinguishers, thinking that would help dissipate it quicker except the tradition of Windy City came up, and the powder is extremely fine, so when we used it in the fire extinguishers, we colored the Wrigley building and probably 100, 200 cars all along Lower Wacker. But to our defense, no one complained.

SIMON: Well, it's St. Patrick's Day, after all. How long does the dye last?

BURKE: It depends on the wind and the current of the river, but if it's not a windy day, it's good for several days.

ROWAN: It has been said, Scott, that it moves down the river, down through the Illinois and Michigan Canal to the Des Plaines River and thence to the Illinois River and then to the Mississippi River where it dyes the Gulf of Mexico green and moves on to Ireland.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Alderman Burke, a nettlesome political question, if I could. Aren't there groups who sometimes say, hey, we want the river dyed for us, too?

BURKE: Well, what color do they want? Maybe we could figure out the right chemical additive.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Alderman Edward Burke of the 14th Ward of Chicago joined by a seasoned river dyer, Tom Rowan, who's on his staff, gentlemen, thank you very much for speaking with us.

BURKE: Oh, not at all. And thanks for inviting us, Scott. It's always a delight to be able to speak with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Green's the color of spring, yeah, and green is cool and spreads new life...

SIMON: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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