LISTEN: Partnership between plumbers union, boat tour turns Chicago River green for St. Patrick’s Day

Chicago dyed the river green on March 12 to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. Spectators were back despite the cold weather. (Xiaotao Zhong/Medill)

By Xiaotao Zhong
Medill Reports

The annual tradition of dyeing the Chicago River a bright neon green returned on March 12 this year to celebrate St Patrick’s Day.

The dyeing started at 10 a.m. Despite a wind chill that made temperatures feel below zero for the first time in the past two weeks, Wacker Drive was packed with spectators who were there to witness the Chicago River change its color.

The plumbers union has been maintaining the annual ritual for more than 60 years. Before Shoreline Sightseeing got involved, the union was using smaller boats. Shoreline Sightseeing replaced them with larger tour boats to make the process more efficient. (Xiaotao Zhong/Medill)

“It’s a bit tame compared to what I expected and what I heard,” said Joe Janes, a teacher at Columbia College who also works for Shoreline Sightseeing. He came out to Chicago’s St Patrick’s Day for the first time. “I guess the weather kind of tempered (the crowd) a little bit.”

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, last year’s river dyeing came as a surprise from the city of Chicago as officials tried not to draw a big crowd of people but maintain the tradition.

Members of the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers’ Local Union 130 have managed the colorful river change for more than 60 years. For the last 10 years, the union has partnered with Shoreline Sightseeing, one of the most popular architectural boat tours in the city, to dye the river. The company provides large tug boats and renovates the back of the boats by installing rigs with fire hoses and extensions for dyeing.

Stace Wiselogel, 52, who has worked for Shoreline Sightseeing for 33 years, serving as operations manager, revealed the procedure of turning the river green with orange leak-detection powder when sprinkled in the water.



Audio transcript:

The plumbers union has been doing it for approximately 60 years, I believe, but we’ve been working with them for about 10 years. Traditionally, they just used smaller boats, little recreational boats, and the guys would basically sprinkle the powder – which is a vegetable-based powder. So it’s not toxic. It’s environmentally friendly.

Four members of the plumbers union use the fire extensions installed on the back of the tug boat to sprinkle the orange powder into the river that make the water turn green. (Xiaotao Zhong/Medill)

The product the plumbers used when they are trying to find a leak in the plumbing, so they put that fluorescent dye in there, and that shows you, wherever it comes out, that indicates where the leak is coming from. So they figured out that it works great for dyeing the river, and traditionally they would use the small boats. We started working with the plumbers union, or became involved with it. We have bigger boats that are tour boats, like tug boats, so there are really big props on them, and they are really able to churn the water. And they set up a rig on there with fire hoses and extensions to get more sprays, and it just looks better – a lot better – on the back of our two tugs.

What’s interesting is the powder itself is orange. When it comes in contact with the water, it’s green. But if you are looking at the plumbers, the guys who were doing it, they were all covered in orange powder, which is funny because those are the St Patrick’s colors right? Orange and green.

It is vegetable-based, so it’s biodegradable, natural, not toxic. Everybody thinks they are putting something chemical in the water, but, no! It’s safe, and the fish are fine.

The boats were just full of various dignitaries and sponsors. Because the river is closed to general traffic, we couldn’t do our normal tours during that period of the dyeing.

It will just slowly flow down the river as the Chicago River locks, when they open up the mouth of the river, that releases lake water down the river, and that slowly dilutes and then starts to flushing down, and it will flow east to west towards the south branch, towards St. Louis.

Xiaotao Zhong is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @SunnyZ_16.