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Greening the Chicago River: A St. Patrick’s Day tradition

March 15, 2011
There is always a huge St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Chicago the weekend before March 17. This year I had the opportunity to see the Chicago River mysteriously turn emerald green. Since I’ve moved to Chicago, I have always been out of town when ...
Butler's boat crew dyeing the Chicago River green.

There is always a huge St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Chicago the weekend before March 17. This year I had the opportunity to see the Chicago River mysteriously turn emerald green. Since I’ve moved to Chicago, I have always been out of town when all the festivities happen, so this year I decided to make the most of it and go down by the river to partake in the celebration and also do some research on the role the trades, specifically plumbers, play during the dyeing of the river and the annual St. Patrick’s parade.

A few year’s ago, my best friend’s dad, who happens to be a retired pipefitter and 100% Irish, told me that plumbers started the tradition of dyeing the river green, so I had to check this out for myself.

I spoke to Kevin Sherlock, organizer of the parade, who said the greening of the Chicago River all started with a plumber years ago, and that plumbers play a huge role in the parade and turning the river green today.

“Plumbers are making this happen,” said Kevin Sherlock, organizer of the parade. “They are doing it. They are sponsoring the dyeing of the river and are parade marshals and working the parade rounds to make sure it is running smoothly. We get tremendous support from everyone: contractors, plumbing councils, plumbing associations, etc.”

Some of the participants in the parade include the Irish American labor council; Local 17: Heat and Frost; Local 73: Sheet Metal Workers; Local 1: Iron Workers; Local 597: Pipefitters; Local 281: Sprinkler Fitters; Local 130: Journeymen Plumbers; Local 134: Electrical Workers; Local 150: Operating Engineers; Local 597: Pipefitters; Local 281: Sprinkler Fitters; Teamsters joint council; Teamsters Local 705; and Teamsters Local 102.

Dyeing of the river

So the story goes that in 1961, a plumber working at Marina City went to talk to Stephen M. Bailey, manager of Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local Union 110, who had an open door policy — anyone could stop by and see him. The plumber stopping by his office that day was wearing white coveralls stained with orange and green dye. Bailey asked the plumber how the coveralls got that way.

According to the article, The Story Behind Dyeing The River Green, the plumber explained to Bailey that he was working at Marina City and the dye was used to detect if any waste materials were being emptied into the river. A plumber would pour green dye into different openings of the waste system, checking to see if green appeared in the river. After hearing the story, Bailey thought why not dye the river for St. Patrick’s Day. So that’s how it all began.

Then in 1962 a boat crew was formed to dye the river green for St. Patrick’s Day. The original crew consisted of Bill Barry, first deputy port director, Thomas Rowan, the head of the Chicago Marine Unit, and a Chicago fire chief.

According to Mike Butler, who has been involved with dyeing the river green for the past 36 years, it took the original crew a while to figure out the proper formula for the dye since no river was ever dyed like this before. But after a couple years, the correct amount of dye was figured out from trial and error the first couple times.

In 1975 when Barry was appointed to an assistant port director position, he asked Butler, then deputy of the Chicago Port Authority, if he would like to replace him in the boat crew. At that time Rowan was still on the boat crew along with his son, a Chicago policeman.

When Butler came on board, there were some concerns that dyeing the river green was not good for the environment. So Butler took samples of the dye to an environmental engineer and professor at John Hopkins University.

“We were getting inquires about polluting the river,” said Butler. “I got a test back stating that it’s completely safe for the water.”

Regarding the formula for the dye, it is unknown to the commoner, said Butler.

“It’s top secret, so top secret that 30 countries have requested that Butler and his crew dye their river green, but the crew has only dyed one other river besides the Chicago River — the Liffey River in Dublin, Ireland.

So for the past 36 years, Butler has been intimately involved in dyeing the river green, and when asked what his most memorable experiences on the boat crew have been, Butler said that it’s the crew that makes the experience.

“The crew is so great, and we all get along so well,” said Butler. “It’s such a family matter. It’s a great feeling.”

The boat crew is made up of Butler’s three son-in-laws, and two sons and a nephew of Tom Rowan Sr., an original crewman who died in 2003. Butler retired from the boat crew in 2007, but is still involved in coordinating the festivities of the day.

Mark Butler, Mike Butler’s son, was also part of the boat crew. Mark passed away in October 2010 from esophageal cancer. He was 45.

During this year’s festivities, the boat crew, family and friends all wore buttons with Mark’s picture on them to remember him.

“Mark reminds all of us that life is unfair, short and uncertain, but worth fighting for,” said Butler. “Fate and drive drove Mark and are driving us.”

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