Small town fires up for each Fourth of July, gets accustomed to highway bypass

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This new monument was built so Hooper, Neb., would still be noticed by traffic. Hooper was bypassed by a new addition to Highway 275.

Photos and Story by Taylor Dahl

MaryAnn Tonjes called it “a mistake” when Highway 275 bypassed Hooper, the Nebraska town she has called home for 75 years.

In the summer of 2007, a new four-lane version of Highway 275 replaced the same highway that once ran through town.

“I thought that by going around town, it would hurt the school, the businesses, and the people,” Tonjes said.

Hooper is a small community, with a population of 830 people. The original highway ran right through the town, located about 40 miles northwest of Omaha. Many visitors would stop at the community’s gas station, the Iron Horse Bar and Grill, or the local grocery store. Residents are adjusting to the new way.

“I feel now since it has been five years, and with the construction of the new tower outside of town, residents have adjusted,” Roxanne Meyer, a city clerk in Hooper, said. “The tensions that were here in 2007 have mostly gone away.”

Meyer’s main concern was that children were so close to the old highway, especially when they would cross it to go to the pool, grocery store, or Main Street.

“I’m glad the highway was built, because you see less heavy machinery going through town, and the kids are safer, and not crossing such a busy road,” she said.

Hooper runs near the Elkhorn River, one of the largest rivers in Nebraska, which was the main reason the town was bypassed.

“We wanted to have a four-lane highway through the Winslow Corridors, which is basically Norfolk, to Omaha. But at certain spots, a bypass was unavoidable,” said Khalil Jaber, the program management engineer at the Nebraska Department of Roads.

The idea was first formulated in 1988, but it took until 2005 to get the entire project started. The wetlands area is the reason why the project was delayed by Department of Roads. Figuring out how to bypass the wetlands was a major issue.

“The initial design for Hooper wasn’t what it is now. But because the wetlands and all the permits we had to go by, it was difficult to find a way to not bypass Hooper,” Jaber said.

Another major reason a bypass was built was flooding issues. The Elkhorn River runs right by Scribner, which is seven miles to the northeast, but it floods every year from very little rainfall.

“Scribner floods so bad they have floodgates on the outside of town to the north just so water won’t run into town, and that closes the highway. We did not want that to happen to Hooper,” Jaber said.

Yet, being on the other side of the issue, Jaber understands what the residents felt right away. He wanted the change to be as painless as possible.

“You don’t want to remove a town for just a road; that is not right. We did what was best for the roads, and the town of Hooper,” Jaber said.

The community of Hooper is growing older. Many people will still use the bypass to get in and out of town. In a few years many will probably not even think of that Old Highway 275 that ran right through town, past the ice cream parlor, the hotel and the gas station. To some, the fate of Hooper is in the hands of its residents. But other still ask will this highway eventually be the reason a small town dies? Some think it may be.

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