Jim Cullum started the tradition of turning the San Antonio River green on St. Patrick's Day.
Jim Cullum, founder of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band, died in August at age 77. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

This is the kind of story you might hear knocking back a few after hours at an Irish pub. Which couldn’t be more perfect, given that it’s the legend of how a couple of men long ago started the tradition of dyeing the San Antonio River emerald green for St. Patrick’s Day.

The year was 1968. On the San Antonio River Walk, there was no steady stream of tourists or convention-goers like today, and the Kangaroo Court restaurant had just opened. The few stores, restaurants, and bars that lined the River Walk catered to mostly locals and downtown workers, who ate their sack lunches on the river’s banks before returning to the office.

Yet a tight-knit group of River Walk business owners was determined to succeed by attracting more people to the River Walk.

“We had dreamed up a whole list of things we could do to have fun,” said Jim Cullum, who was 25 at the time, playing jazz nightly at a club on the River Walk, and serving as president of the Paseo del Rio Association, now known as the San Antonio River Walk Association.

He was having the time of his life and wanted everyone else to join him.

So begins the tale of how a Paseo del Rio Association board member’s friend obtained “a dozen or so” military-style dye marker packs used by parachutists to spread fluorescent green dye in the ocean to make themselves visible. “Or maybe it was 20,” Cullum said.

Cullum then made a ceremony of dropping a dye pack into a water feature near what is now the Omni La Mansión del Rio Hotel, transforming it into a gushing green fountain cascading into the river.

“They sure did the job,” Cullum said. “The funny thing was, it didn’t dissipate.” The river eventually had to be drained to remove the green colorant. But a tradition was born.

These days the dye job is accomplished using 25 gallons of eco-friendly green dye dispensed into the water from a barge bearing bagpipers as it travels down the river.

To witness the transformation this year, position yourself anywhere along the 2.5-mile downtown portion of the River Walk at 1 p.m. on Friday, March 16, and Saturday, March 17. The green color lasts only a few days, and won’t harm fish or plant life in the river.

“People are always concerned [about the safety of the dye], and I thank them,” said Paula Schechter, director of marketing and public relations for the River Walk Association. “I truly love that the public feels protective of the River Walk.”

Over the course of two to three days, Schechter added, the river goes from emerald green to turquoise green to a fluorescent green before it returns to normal. Fifty thousand people watched the dyeing of the river last year via Facebook Live, she said.

With a sponsor, Mad Dogs British Pub, on board for the first time this year, the river-dyeing event also will offer ticket holders the chance to ride along behind the dye barge and enjoy beverages served by the sponsor and its kilt-wearing crew.

“We really love it,” Mad Dogs manager Ryan Wood said of the holiday. “The British are so close to Ireland, and our founders are big about us celebrating St. Patrick’s. We go all out. We decorate the patio. Last year, we had an Irish band, and this year we have our own bagpiper. We are stoked.”

San Antonio’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Festival and Parade, open to the public, takes over the River Walk’s Arneson River Theatre on March 16 and 17, from noon to 8 p.m. Last year, 75,000 locals, tourists, and spring breakers attended the events.

San Antonio is one of several cities across the country, from Chicago to Tampa, that mark St. Patrick’s Day by going green with their waterways and holding parades to celebrate this country’s Irish heritage. The first St. Paddy’s Day parade took place in 1762 when Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City to honor their Irish roots.

Cullum said he was young and full of energy that spring day when they executed a river-dyeing plan that’s still in practice today, albeit much less improvised. Cullum remained on the board of the River Walk Association for many years after, serving as president twice, while playing the cornet at “the hottest jazz club west of New Orleans,” a venue once known as The Landing.

“We did all kinds of things,” he said. “We basically had a blast doing all that stuff.”

Jim Cullum started the tradition of turning the San Antonio River green on St. Patrick's Day.
Jim Cullum plays his trumpet as a river barge passes at the location where the river dyeing tradition was born. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Shari Biediger has been covering business and development for the San Antonio Report since 2017. A graduate of St. Mary’s University, she has worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds in San Antonio...