Belmont’s “Happy Hydrants”

Photos by Robb Most

words by Lexi Friesel

If you live or spend any time in Belmont, you may have noticed that not all of the fire hydrants look the way you’ve come to expect. Whether you’re walking along a residential street or driving down busy El Camino or Ralston Avenue, colorfully decorated hydrants seem to pop up all over the place. Back in the early 1970s, in a tribute to the approaching U.S. bicentennial and Belmont’s 50th anniversary, residents rallied in a collective creative spirit to paint more than 300 city hydrants. Inspired by the larger “Paint a Plug for America” program, many of the hydrants captured patriotic characters—including Betsy Ross, John Hancock and Paul Revere—with additional themes ranging from robots to the San Francisco Giants. Jim McLaughlin, a former Belmont city clerk, suggested the idea and even wrote a poem, “The Happy Hydrants of Belmont,”to commemorate the initiative. The name “Happy Hydrants” stuck. Over the years, the number of hand-crafted plugs dwindled due to aging and weather damage—as well as new state standards enacted in the 1990s, which mandated uniform hydrant colors. Fortunately, many of Belmont’s “Happy Hydrants” got a reprieve from the law thanks to a bill sponsored by former state senator Quentin Kopp, and an estimated 50 to 60 are still around to catch your eye and elicit a smile.