Come Hell and High Water: The History of Hufnagle

Sophia Ippolito, Contributing Writer

Let me begin by telling you a story. It is not cheerful, nor will it leave you with a sense of optimism, but you should hear it nonetheless. Maybe when it’s done, you will better understand the year-long construction around Lewisburg’s Hufnagle Park and why it’s important work. Find a comfortable spot to read, as our story is about to begin.

As predicted by forecasters, heavy rain on June 22, 1972 was supposed to cause flooding farther due west of Lewisburg, Pa. But as misfortune would have it, Hurricane Agnes, to become Tropical Storm Agnes, had other plans. The swift change of destination trammeled a swell of unsuspecting citizens. Not just fillers in a story from the seventies, but real people: store clerks, bank tellers, mothers and fathers and their terrified children; summer vacation lifeguards, whose temporary summertime occupations left them no better prepared than the rest; and real people like you and like me, who battled raging torrents that came on them in a matter of minutes. They had no warning. No pre-flood caution or sounding alarm to instruct them to vacate basements and remove themselves from potentially collapsing homes. The waters came rushing in nonetheless, either ignorant of this fact or in vengeful disregard of it. 

They had no warning.

Take a trip back in time with me and imagine to your best ability this stark, some would say horrific, scene. On the second floor of your home the tap, tap, tap chorus of steady rain on the roof is quickly accompanied by muffled shouts from the homes of your neighbors. As you squint your eyes ever so slightly to better hear the commotion (for no better reason than that we’ve all done this while trying to better concentrate on listening), you make out the barely audible yells from Gladys — or Larry, or Sue, or some other nearby neighbor — which alerts that notorious little voice in the center of both the mind and the gut to the current situation. As you rush to the nearest river-facing window, you try to silence that ever-growing voice which tells you “the rain has been too much,” “the rain has swollen the river” “the rain, the rain, the rain.” The sheet of white which is the current rainfall blurs many things, but it does not stop you from seeing, at that moment, the very worst thing of all. As you look down, the water rises with unstoppable force and your feet hesitate while your mind decides if there is time enough to get downstairs and to safer ground. Your grandmother’s handwritten recipes, family albums, and fond cracks in the walls where loose footballs or basketballs did their damage, all collide with the memories you have to leave behind – all facing a common sentence, to be ravaged by the storm. 

You had no warning.

I now bring you back to the outskirts of this story so that the focus of today’s article may be introduced. On that day, June 22, 1972, former Lewisburg chief of police and then-current borough safety chief Gordon Hufnagle captained a search-and-rescue boat in a race against time. His fight was against mother nature’s deadliest recipe; flooding equates to too much water and not enough time. As the intro suggests, this is no happy tale. Hufnagle’s boat, carrying the elderly couple Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Murphy, recently evacuated from their no-longer-safe home, capsizes. Hufnagle and Mrs. Murphy are immediately enveloped in the dashing currents which scour the small town. Joe Murphy died not long after in his son’s home. 

The aftermath was crippling. The homes and businesses most devastated by the flooding were demolished, the land of which is now the very site of the memorial park built in Hufnagle’s honor. 

Dedicated to the memory of
Gordon Hufnagle,
Public Safety Director,
who lost his life while attempting
the rescue of Lewisburg citizens on
June 22, 1972.

This is the engraving on Chief Hufnagle’s memorial plaque. You can find this plaque at Hufnagle Park when construction concludes.

The park was christened in Hufnagle’s memory and upon a deep dive search for more information, on both his life as well as his death, part of his eulogy was found. It reads, “He was especially highly regarded for his work with youth, having received several awards for his work in that area.” The park is a resounding testament to the life he dedicated to others, especially to younger generations. 

Now, once again, and with a budget of 1.4 million dollars, the area is under heavy construction to demolish the old and reinvent the park with a new life. Driven by three major components, the site is undergoing three labor- and (typically) time-intensive projects. The first of these components is reportedly to restore the park’s floodplains, which will be made lower and wider to accommodate a larger holding capacity in the case of future flooding events. The second component is to extend the Buffalo Valley ‘Rail Trail’ in Lewisburg Borough from Market Street to campus – a paved mixed-use path for both pedestrians and bicyclists will be constructed along the municipal parking lot in Hufnagle Park, St. Louis Street between the railroad tracks and South Sixth Street, and along the east side of South Sixth Street. The new mixed-use path will connect the current terminus of the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail with the campus’ Borough of Lewisburg. 

Finally, the park is taking out its once yellow-and-green playground set. Trading plastic for potential, the park will be refurbished with areas and equipment that will stimulate and encourage children to learn and explore the environment before them. A portion of the park will also include stream access, which is projected to be beset with large sitting or stepping stones for park visitors to enjoy and actively engage in the creek area. 

How beautifully poetic this change to the park will be. With this step towards the reinvention of how the Lewisburg children will learn and play safely, Chief Hufnagle’s memory will be reborn one final time. The first was with the initial construction of the park, which took the place of something dark and rotten and molested by floods and replaced it with something young and full of life. And again, with the fresh life breathed back into this aging zone, Chief Hufnagle’s memory can live once more.

The story of Gordon Hufnagle is not a happy one but the ending – which is not really an ending at all, but rather the reporting of what should be a bright beginning – can leave you with a happy takeaway. To some, it’s just a park; to others, it will only ever be a park. But to those few who stop and read the engraved plaque, it is far more. As you walk past it or bring your future kids to play in it you should be reminded of Chief Hufnagle, who we remember for his bravery.

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