City Quotient: Celebrating the Nation’s Bicentennial with Colorful Fire Hydrants

Patriotic plugs came to the capital city during the 1976 celebration.

Jeff Darbee
Fire hydrants around Columbus were painted to celebrate the bicentennial.

Columbus celebrated the Bicentennial with colorful and creative fire hydrants.

Is it true that a lot of fire hydrants once got repainted for the Fourth of July? Metal fire hydrants need paint, but there’s more to it. The National Fire Protection Association developed color-coding for a hydrant’s capacity in gallons per minute. Blue means 1,500 gpm or more; green, 1,000 to 1,499 gpm; orange, 500 to 999 gpm; and red, under 500 gpm—important to know when tackling a fire. NFPA recommends painting the hydrant column yellow for high visibility; other colors are OK if standard throughout a town or city. Color codes should go on hydrant tops and nozzle covers. Paint should be reflective and formulated not to dry out and make the hydrant hard to open. NFPA recommends against, but does not prohibit, citizens painting fire hydrants.

Which leads us to July 4; specifically, our nation’s Bicentennial on July 4, 1976. As that anniversary approached, red, white and blue appeared on signs, water towers, railroad engines and cars—almost anything that sat still long enough to get painted. As for fire hydrants, one source said the idea originated in Indiana, possibly South Bend, and was called “Paint a Plug for America,” a campaign that came to Columbus and other Ohio towns. Whoever started the idea, we soon saw a plethora of squatty national heroes—Betsy Ross, Thomas Paine, Crispus Attucks, Ethan Allen, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry, to name a few. It was all great fun, though over time the hydrants chipped, faded or were painted over. But (hint, hint) July 4, 2026, is just around the corner.

The statue of William McKinley on Capitol Square is pretty impressive. How long has it been there? Our 25th president was one of eight sent to the White House from Ohio. Born in Niles in Northeast Ohio, he was widely admired for his humble family background and sterling service in the Civil War. McKinley earned a law degree after being discharged and soon began his political climb, starting as Stark County prosecutor and then rising through a seat in Congress and the Ohio governorship to the presidency. He achieved this through his “front porch campaign,” emphasizing his modesty and humility.

McKinley easily gained a second term in 1900 but met his end in 1901 when he was shot by an assassin at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Very quickly, a host of Columbus notables began a movement for a monument to the late president. It was budgeted at $50,000; half of that amount came from the Ohio General Assembly and half from donations, with some individual contributions in pennies, nickels and dimes. The monument was designed by sculptor Robert Ingersoll Aitken, while the statue was the work of Hermon A. MacNeil. The figures represent Peace instructing a little girl about peaceful pursuits in life, and Prosperity teaching a young boy about using industrial tools, the basis of American prosperity. (I know, I know, but this was 1904.)

Why is McKinley looking away from the Statehouse? His wife, who was seriously ill, lived with him at the Neil House Hotel on the opposite side of High Street, and each day he turned and waved to her as he left for work.

Jeff Darbee is a preservationist, historian and author in Columbus. 

Sources: kqed.org; firehydrant.org; wsrb.com; ohiostatehouse.org