Greening the Chicago River

Festivals, Hometown Heroes, Iconic Communities, On the Road, People, Seasonal, Traditions
on March 3, 2011
Ben Jenkins Mike Butler and his crew dye the Chicago River green for the city’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities, a tradition begun in 1961.

With bagpipes wailing Irish tunes and green-clad celebrants watching from the banks of the Chicago River in downtown Chicago, Mike Butler’s two-boat crew slams over the choppy waves, scattering a fine orange powder overboard. In their wake, the murky brown water turns yellow, then lime, and finally a vibrant emerald green, inspiring cheers from thousands of onlookers assembled for Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Chicagoans attribute the transformation to a bit of Irish magic, as well as to the gregarious Butler, 75, who for nearly four decades has colored the Windy City’s river for the Irish-inspired holiday. From the banks of the river, Butler coordinates the spectacle while keeping the dye’s “recipe” top secret, making Chicago the only city in the world to celebrate St. Patty’s Day by greening a major river.

“We want our parade to be different from everyone else’s,” says Butler, of Darien, Ill. (pop. 22,860), a bedroom community of Chicago.

Volunteering his services each year for the festivities, Butler exudes a contagious and knowledgeable enthusiasm.

“No one else knows how to do this,” says Kevin Sherlock, 52, parade coordinator for the Chicago Journeyman’s Plumbers Union, which sponsors the event. “It’s our heritage and tradition. People come from all over the world to watch.”

The tradition began in 1961 when the union’s then-general manager, Stephen J. Bailey, discovered that plumbers used green dye to trace pollution sources into the river. He recognized the dye’s potential for Chicago, known for its large St. Patrick’s celebration on the Saturday of or before March 17.

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“We learned how to do it the hard way,” says Butler, who was deputy of the Chicago Port Authority in 1974 when he joined the crew. At first, the team used 100 pounds of aircraft rescue dye that colored the river for a week, and environmentalists objected to its oil base. Using food coloring proved ineffective, while shooting the dye into the river with fireboat water guns colored cars on a nearby expressway.

 Today, crewmen use ordinary flour sifters to distribute 40 pounds of powder that is mixed into the water by the boats’ outboard motors. The dye colors the water for about 24 hours and has been tested and found environmentally safe by independent chemists.

“After 40 years, we’ve got it down pat,” Butler declares.

Born in Chicago to parents who emigrated from Ireland, Butler is a “proud dual citizen” and feels privileged to coordinate the annual greening. “It’s a difficult job,” Butler says, “but when you see the happiness we bring people, it’s worth it.”

Each year, some 35,000 onlookers line the river-banks and bridges wearing green shamrocks, beads, derby hats and T-shirts that say “Kiss Me, I’m Irish.”

“It’s a rite of spring,” explains Chicagoan John Hamilton, 38, watching last year’s river greening with his mother, Sandra Hamilton, 72, his wife, Angie, 39, and their children, Collin, 5, and Lilly, 2. “It’s a tradition you want your kids to see.”

Sabrina and Jim McKinney came by train from South Bend, Ind., for the festivities. “We learned about it online and decided we just had to see it,” says Sabrina, 32. “It’s so much fun.”

Butler’s crew of leprechauns includes his three sons-in-law, and two sons and a nephew of Tom Rowan Sr., an original crewman who died in 2003.

Though surgical suits protect their clothing, the powdered dye coats the crew’s skin and hair and is activated by moisture. “It gets behind my contacts and turns my eyes green,” says Tom Rowan Jr., 66. “If my nose runs, my mustache will turn green.”

Out of hometown loyalty, Butler and crew have declined invitations to work their magic on London’s Thames River, the Seine in Paris, and the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. But because the holiday began in Ireland, they made an exception for Dublin’s Liffey River in 1999.

“When we put the orange dye in the river, the crowd went silent,” recalls Butler about onlookers in Dublin. “But as the water turned green, it went crazy chanting, ‘Peace, peace!’”

Butler retired from the boat crew in 2007 and lets his younger partners endure the jarring 45-minute ride in the icy spray. However, he still coordinates plans with the Plumbers Union and the parade committee, helps organize fundraisers, orders supplies, and handles hundreds of inquiries about the crew’s services.

“Mike is the go-to person,” Rowan says. “If we need something, he gets it done.”

Chicago’s 2011 St. Patrick’s Day Parade is scheduled March 12. Visit for more information.