By Louise Coffin
A red dot in my road atlas. Northeastern Pennsylvania, Bradford County. French Azilum. Just under one of the myriad curves that characterize the Susquehanna River’s north branch. That red dot had piqued my curiosity for several years. In July, my husband, David, and I set out to find it.
1793. The French Revolution. Several wealthy Philadelphians sympathized with the loyalists’ plight. They purchased nearly 2,000 acres of land near Towanda (from exactly whom I do not know) and offered 300 acres to French émigrés escaping imprisonment and the guillotine in France, as well as from the slave uprising in Santo Domingo. The goal was to create a town for some 500 families, complete with a market square, a shipping wharf out into the Susquehanna, and even a two- or three-storied house especially for Marie Antoinette. Some 50 houses were built, log cabins, to be sure, and I do not know who built them. (I can’t imagine a member of Louis XVI’s court wielding a hammer or saw.) Glass windows, fireplaces, wallpaper. Visitors included the exiled Louis Phillipe and the diplomat Talleyrand.
Yet the community was short-lived. Some settlers left before the turn of the century. And in 1803, Napoleon pardoned the loyalists, many of whom returned to their former holdings in France or Santo Domingo. Others moved to New Orleans, Charleston, or Savannah. A very few original settlers stayed in the area. The buildings disappeared. The only vestige of the original site remaining is, appropriately, the ruins of a wine cellar.
If you go, you will drive through beautiful farmland sweeping down to the river. A grassy lane leads to a small visitors’ center. Housed in a contemporaneous log cabin moved from another site is a little museum that displays unearthed broken crockery and glassware. A short walk through meadowland will bring you to the LaPorte House, a quite grand “summer” home built in the 1830s by the son of one of the original French Azilum inhabitants. It is open for tours.
“Nothing beside remains,” as Shelley wrote of another place and another time.
For more information, log on to frenchazilum.com.