by Dan O’Leary, courtesy
A modern day miracle occurs each year as part of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade celebration when the Chicago River turns an incredible shade of Irish green. This spectacular transformation ranks right up there with the parting of the sea by Moses and the Pyramids of Egypt.
For the past 43 years the Chicago River turns green for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade celebration. One would ask how this is different from the rest of the year when the river is always a murky shade of green. The difference is both significant and breathtaking because the color green is identical to the greens of Ireland from where it got its name “The Emerald Isle.”
In 1961 Stephen Bailey was approached by a plumber who was wearing some white coveralls, they knew this only because they could see some of the original color. These coveralls had been mostly stained or dyed a perfect shade of green, an Irish green to better describe it. It was when Stephen Bailey asked how the coveralls got this way, that they discovered that the dye used to detect leaks into the river turned green, not just any color green, but the perfect color green. “A tradition is born”
Today this miracle belongs to Mike Butler and his crew, which he claims to always have a little help from a leprechaun who seems to just appear at this time each year.
If you were watching this for the first time you would think this is a mistake or a bad joke. You see the dye is orange and its initial color on the surface of the river is orange and you would think to yourself what heathen would do something like this. After a moment or two you then see the true color magically appear.
Two miracles appear that day, the river turns a perfect shade of green something that many other cities have tried but have not been successful at doing, and the second miracle by starting with the color orange giving the impression that river will be orange only to convert the river to that true Irish green. We believe that is where the leprechaun comes in.
As the late Stephen Bailey has said, the road from Chicago to Ireland is marked in green. From the Chicago River to the Illinois River, then to the Mississippi, up the Gulf Stream and across the Atlantic you can see the beautiful green enter the Irish Sea, clearly marking the way from Chicago to Ireland.
The Man Who Dyed the River Green: Stephen M. Bailey
It was early December 1961 when Steve Bailey asked me to stop in to discuss plans for the 1962 St. Patrick's Day Parade.
Bailey's office at Plumber's Hall was unique. His desk was a huge oval table, perhaps 30 feet long, made of burnished wood and turquoise color leather. Around the circumference were 11 unupholstered chairs, and at the head, a twelfth chair. It belonged to Bailey.
As Business Manager of the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local Union #110, Bailey prided himself on keeping his office door open to anyone who wanted to see him.
Shortly after I entered his office his secretary told him a plumber wanted to see him about something personal. He was ushered into his office.
The plumber wore white coveralls and Bailey did a double-take when he noticed they were splotched with green coloring.
“Where have you been?” Bailey asked. The plumber told him he had been trying to locate and disconnect a waste line that was emptying into the Chicago River.
That was the year the city began enforcing water pollution controls. A building near the Chicago River had been ordered to discontinue emptying waste materials into the river.
In order to find the source of the discharge, the plumber poured green dye into various openings of the waste system and then checked at the river's edge to see whether or not the green appeared.
Bailey's eyes turned to the ceiling and a smile brightened his face. He looked at me and said, “The river could use it.”…
“Why couldn't we dye the whole river for St. Patrick's Day?” he added. I couldn't believe my ears! My first thought was that it couldn't be done, but knowing Bailey I knew it was going to be tried.
When the plumber left and we were alone again he said, ”I'm serious. Who would know about this?”
Reaching for a straw I answered, Capt. Manley, the port director. He is the only one I know who answers questions about the Chicago River.
In a second he was on the phone to Capt. Manley.
Bill Barry, first deputy port director, happened to be in Manley's office when the call came in and related the following conversation.
"Say John," said Bailey, "I've been wondering whether we could dye the river green for St. Patrick's Day. What do you think?"
"It might work" said Manley, after a moments hesitation. "Just a minute."
Manley turned to Barry and put the question to him.
"Gee, Cap, I don't know," said Barry. "If the Fire Department can shoot colored water into the air from its boats, I don't see why we couldn't try it."
Manley went back to the phone and told Bailey he was sure it could be done. "We will explore it with your people and the Fire Department."
After the call Bailey turned to me and said, "I want you to get together with Capt. Manley and Bill Barry and test the dye the plumbers, to see if it will work."
Barry and I met with a salesman who sold dye to plumbing contractors. They used a compound of fluorescence dye that had been used by the military in rescue operations at sea.
Barry recalls, "I remember seeing that dye for the first time we tried it, and I thought we'd been crossed. But once we stirred it up in the water with a couple of motorboats, it made a regular carpet of green. It was beautiful. It looked like you could walk on it."
One of the initial problems was that there was no recipe for dying rivers green. Chicago was the first and only city to do it. So the question was: Do you use a few handfuls of dye or a carload?
One-hundred pounds was used the first year. The river stayed green for a week! The second year, 1963, we cut to 50 lbs, the river was green for three days.
We finally decided to use 25 lbs and that did the job for one day.
In 1966, the environmentalists accused the parade committee of polluting the river. They complained that the dye was oil-based and was detrimental to all living things.
Bailey laughed when he heard their argument but agreed to find a new compound that would do the job and appease the critics.
The committee experimented with a number of vegetable dyes and after a bit of trial and error, the current 40 lbs of new dye was hit upon. It produces a carpet of green for four or five hours. The flamboyant Bailey had a field-day with the press when he announced he was changing the Chicago River to the Shannon River for one day.
With characteristic Irish exaggeration, Bailey said. "The Chicago River will dye the Illinois, which will dye the Mississippi, which will dye the Gulf of Mexico, which will send green dye up the gulf stream across the North Atlantic into the Irish Sea, a sea of green surrounding the land will appear as a greeting to all Irishmen of the Emerald Isle from the men of Erin in Chicago land, USA.
Bailey loved St. Patrick's Day and he loved the parade. He had an unusual knack for making the front pages. Once he had the brain storm of coloring the Wrigley Building green by using colored flood lights, but it was vetoed.
"I don't think P.K. Wrigley likes the Irish," he said. Another time, he started a controversy with William A. Lee, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor. He implied that Lee was not Irish and that the only time he ever saw the name Willy Lee was on a laundry window.
Lee countered by saying he had just returned from Europe and that in Ireland he saw the beautiful River Lee flowing gently through the center of Ireland. And that it wasn't until he got to England that he saw the name Old Bailey, and it was on a jail.
In 1954, Stephen Michael Bailey made national headlines when he sent Dr. Albert Einstein a membership card in the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers, Local 110, AFL-CIO.
"...He is going to have to pay dues and attend meetings, but we'll waive the apprenticeship period," said Bailey.
Bailey was reacting to a magazine article in which Einstein was quoted, "I would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler in the hope of finding that most modest degree of independence still available."
Bailey later sent a similar card to Rear Adm John D. Bulkeley. It was Bulkeley who supervised cutting the 14-inch water supply line at the United States Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Bulkeley did so, after Cuban Premier Fidel Castro accused him of stealing water from the pipeline. Castro had shut off water to the base.
"We are proud to have a man like Bulkeley in our union." Bailey remarked.
A few years ago, Bailey reserved the bad shell in Grant Park and watched a class of 350 graduate from the union's five-year apprentice program. The graduates wore tuxedos at his request.
Bailey was chairman of the loop parade from 1958 until his death November 15, 1966.
Dan Lydon was Chairman of Chicago's St. Patrick's Parade in 1956 and the Parade Coordinator from 1957 to 1991.