French Azilum: An Asylum Fit for a Queen
As you follow Route 6 east of Towanda through the wooded hills of Bradford County, the road climbs the 1,600-foot ridge of Summer eld Mountain, offering far below lovely views of one of the most idyllic spots in the Keystone State: the Susquehanna River meandering in a great horseshoe bend encircling a broad terrace of gentle fields and pastures and isolated farmhouses. This peaceful place is called French Azilum (asylum). If the sight gives you a sense of pastoral bliss, imagine how the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, would have felt had she escaped the terrors of the French Revolution to inhabit a great log mansion here, fleeing the guillotine for the remote safety and bounty of Penn’s Woods in the New World.
That was the plan: In the fall of 1793 a small group of French exiles came up the Susquehanna from Wilkes-Barre in dugout canoes and boats provided by a French trader. They were citizens of France who “had fled to Philadelphia to escape the certain imprisonment and probable death for which their loyalty to Louis the XVI marked them,” according to a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission leaflet. “A few were of the courtier circle close to the king; some were of the minor nobility, officeholders, army officers, professional men, clergymen, merchants, and few artisans.” Others fled the French colony of Santo Domino where mulatto and slave uprisings were replicating the carnage of Paris, and joined the asylum far from revolution, insurrections, and the yellow fever outbreak then sweeping Philadelphia.
The two Frenchmen who established the colony were otherwise certainties for the executioner’s blade: attorney Antoine Omer Talon, former chief justice of the criminal court of France, and Louis de Noailles, Lafayette’s brother-in-law, who had fought with distinction in the American Revolution. A member of the French National Assembly of 1789, his mother was chief maid of honor to Marie Antoinette.
Sensing a business opportunity, Philadelphians Robert Morris, who signed the Declaration of Independence and financed the American Revolution, wealthy businessman Stephen Girard, and others formed a land company and purchased sixteen hundred acres to establish Azilum. Thirty log houses went up by the next spring, including La Grand Maison, a two-story log house, eighty feet by sixty, which became the center of the social life of the sophisticated French town in the wilderness. Talleyrand and Louis Phillipe, a future King of France, stayed as guests; this was the house set aside for the queen. But Marie Antoinette was beheaded that same fall, October 16, 1793. Undeterred, the exiles in time added a schoolhouse, a chapel, a theater, dairying and sheep, gardens and orchards, a gristmill, blacksmith, a piano, a horseman who rode the mail to Philadelphia weekly, and makers of soap, gunpowder, and glass. But soon the town disappeared into the wilderness. With the bankruptcies of builders Morris and Nicholson, the émigrés left for Charleston or New Orleans, returned to Santo Domingo, or, after 1803, returned safely to France under Napoleon. A few families, such as the LaPortes, remained, and they and their descendants settled local communities.
Today you can visit the historic site at 469 Queens Road, Towanda, open May 28 to September 4 Monday through Friday and September 5 to October 9 on weekends. The $5 for adults covers a self-guided tour of the grounds and a guided tour of the LaPorte House, a graceful structure of French Colonial style built in 1836 by John LaPorte, son of Bartholomew LaPorte, an original settler. There’s an authentic 1780s hand-hewn cabin with a fifteen-minute DVD introduction, but none of the original structures remain, which is why it’s even worth a visit in winter, when all the buildings are closed, to stand in the snow-dusted fields encircled by in the gentle hills and the Susquehanna, with nothing to consult but your imagination.