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They dye the Chicago River — and a few other things — green

The Chicago River between Michigan Avenue Wabash Avenue gets green codye March 17 2001 for St. Patrick's Day Parade. |

The Chicago River between Michigan Avenue and Wabash Avenue gets a green coat of dye on March 17, 2001, for the St. Patrick's Day Parade. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 19, 2012 8:33AM

When you’re gazing down at the glistening florescent-green Chicago River Saturday morning, spare a thought for the guys giving the water a big stir with their motorboats.

Through the years, they’ve had snowballs and beer cans tossed at them, been chilled to the bone for hours on end and inhaled enough dye to turn their urine green.

“If you blow your nose, it’s green, and if you cry, it’s green,” said Jimmy Horath, who has been driving the dye boat for the last 18 years.

Saturday marks the 50th year the Chicago River has been dyed green to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

And although conditions can be downright miserable on the river, it’s an annual occasion Horath wouldn’t dream of missing.

“It’s an absolute riot,” said Horath, a truck driver for the Chicago Park District.

The late Steve Bailey, a powerful business manager with the Plumbers Union, came up with the idea. He at first toyed with the idea of dyeing Lake Michigan.

“It never got off the ground,” said Michael Butler, Horath’s father-in-law, who has been involved with dyeing the river for 35 years.

So instead, Bailey settled for a more modest canvas — coloring the Chicago River electric green for the first time in 1962.

At the time, Bailey told gathered reporters: “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.”

In the early days, a crowd of perhaps 2,000 would congregate along the river. On Saturday, with June-like temperatures, organizers are expecting close to 50,000 spectators.

Butler recalled one year when a small group of spectators chucked beer cans at the motorboats. The crews stopped, got out of the boats and approached the spectators. When two of the thugs mouthed off to the crew, they got clocked, Butler said.

“Consequently, I don’t remember anyone else throwing anything else at me,” Butler said.

But mostly, Butler remembers the dyeing of the Chicago River for what it is — something uniquely Chicago.

“It’s special,” Butler said. “We’re the only city in the United States that does it. Nobody has been able to quite duplicate it; other cities have tried. Maybe they get a little color in, but they never succeed the way we get the Chicago River.”

The river dyeing is set for 10 a.m. Saturday downtown, with the St. Patrick’s Day Parade to follow at noon. If you arrive early enough, you will see the dye’s original color as it’s dumped into the river — orange. But don’t worry Irish Catholics, it turns green once it hits the water.

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