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Other cities dye-ing to know what turns Chicago river green

British Battle, The Columbia Chronicle (Columbia College)

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Published: Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Updated: Sunday, August 10, 2008

(U-WIRE) CHICAGO - Dyeing the Chicago River Irish green has been a tradition for more than 40 years and at least 50 cities want to know how Chicago volunteers perform the miraculous transformation every year.

Bill King, the administrator of Chicago's St. Patrick's Day committee, said that because dyeing the river is considered such a unique way of celebrating the Irish holiday and because the river's color happens to be so close to the greens of Ireland, many cities have contacted the St. Patrick's Day committee seeking help with duplicating the famous act.

"One city called this week and said they saw the green river on television and asked how we dyed the river, and I said if I told them we wouldn't be on television anymore," King said.

When asked what kind of dye is used to stain the Chicago River the perfect shade of green on St. Patrick's Day, King said, "That's like telling where the leprechaun hides its gold."

According to King, the idea of dyeing the Chicago River green originally came about by accident when a group of plumbers were using green dye to trace illegal substances that were polluting the river. Ironically, Stephen Bailey, business manager of the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local Union No. 130 noticed the dye being used could become an interesting way to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.

The chemical used during the 1960s to turn the river green was a fluorescent dye. But King said it's not allowed anymore because the Environmental Protection Agency outlawed the use of the chemical that was proven to be harmful to the river. King said the secret ingredients used to dye the river green today are safe and are not harmful to the thousands of goldfish that make up a large percentage of the river's fish population.

Volunteers from the St. Patrick's Day committee have been responsible for the mysterious transformation witnessed by thousands of Chicagoans for the past 20 years. They even dyed a river green in Ireland in 1999.

Turning the Chicago River green is actually a simple process, according to King. He said, "It takes about five minutes." King said that two boats go out with volunteers one hour before the parade begins and they each do one stretch between the bridges. The transformation is consider magical because not only does the dye stain the river green, but it also disappears by evening.

King has his own theory on why the Chicago River receives so much attention as opposed to the St. Patrick's Day activities in other cities.

"We have been dyeing the river for so long now. There are eight other St. Patrick's Day parades in Illinois," King said. "Other cities have attempted to dye their rivers, but they haven't been as successful. It's unique to our city that we have this trademark."