Bagpipes blare, shamrocks decorate throngs of people from head to toe, and “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” shirts abound — all in 20 degree temperatures. It’s just the typical Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago, when the bustling sea of green found on the streets serves as a visual precursor for what will happen just moments later to the city’s iconic river.
Every year the 156-mile system of rivers and canals is dyed green in honor of the holiday — an event that has been garnering thousands of spectators ever since its 1962 inception.
It’s a tradition that Chicagoan Bob Rowan has been involved in for more than a decade — and one that his family has even deeper ties with.
We dye in rainstorms; we dye in blizzards. One time we did it, and we couldn't even see the bridge, it was snowing so bad.
Why Does Chicago Dye Its River Green
Rowan goes back in time to share his unique family history with Marriott TRAVELER from the very modern Raised | An Urban Rooftop Bar at the Renaissance Chicago Downtown Hotel, the perfect vantage point to see the Chicago River go green.
“The story goes that there were some plumbers who spilled green dye into the water, and when Mayor Daley Senior saw it, he wanted to know if we could do it for St. Patrick’s Day — he was a big St. Patrick’s Day guy,” Rowan says.
The first person they thought to contact for the job? Rowan’s father Tom, who was in charge of the river’s police boats at the time. “The mayor’s office went straight to him to talk about it, and we’ve been dyeing the river ever since.”
Once Rowan’s father passed away in 2002, his brother Thomas took the reins in the ritual, and Rowan joined him in 2005.
How Do They Dye the Chicago River Green?
The job entails a two-hour boat expedition up and down the Chicago River with nearly 60 pounds of dye — or as Rowan clandestinely describes the top-secret formula, “Leprechaun Dust.”
When you're down in the water and looking up, it's like being at the Super Bowl. There's not an inch of railing that doesn't have someone standing on it.
And while it may look like a cakewalk from afar, Rowan assures it can be anything but — enough reason for him to feel fortunate to have some years of experience under his belt.
“We’ve practiced a long time to get it right,” he says. “It’s not that easy to land on the perfect shade of green without big giant streaks in it, and it’s taken us quite a few years to figure out how to do that — but now we have a way of putting it down so it comes out evenly and in a nice, bright hue.”
That is, if weather cooperates.
“We did it one year when it was real windy, and the dye blew up onto Wacker Drive, so we ended up dyeing the entire South Side of Upper Wacker green,” recalls Rowan. “As I passed people on the street and saw the green all over their faces, I was like, ‘we need to get out of here.’ It was pretty wild.”
Still, nothing keeps Rowan and his team away from the annual event — they show up rain or shine. “We dye in rainstorms; we dye in blizzards. One time we did it, and we couldn’t even see the bridge, it was snowing so bad,” he says.
Sometimes that weather is in their favor, too.
“One year it was snowing, and the water turned this incredible florescent green,” he says. “I was flipped out by it and was like, ‘man, it looks awfully bright this year.’ It was all because of the snow.”
It’s that kind of effect that has prompted requests for the team’s river-dye handiwork worldwide, from France to Ireland. Still, Rowan is the first to admit that outside of Chicago, the experience just isn’t quite the same.
“One year we did one in Dublin, and when we arrived we were given a tugboat — it was so huge it was comical,” he says. “What’s more — the river was so dirty that it barely turned green.”
It was far from the case this particular day in Chicago, as Rowan and his team slipped down the well-watched waterway, leaving an electric trail of green behind them.
Gaggles of matching green onlookers cheered street-side, while muffled applause erupted from the heavily mittened crowds lining the Michigan Avenue Bridge.
And Rowan couldn’t think of a better place to be.
“When you’re down in the water and looking up, it’s like being at the Super Bowl — there’s not an inch of railing that doesn’t have someone standing on it,” he says. “It’s so great to see the crowd and feel the atmosphere that they’re able to create — it’s really exciting to be a part of such a special family tradition.”