Wish You Were Here reflects the value of postcards as tools for learning about the past, with images drawn from Manuscript Group 213, Postcard Collection, Pennsylvania State Archives.

This scenic overlook in rural Bradford County, pictured in these postcards, provides a view of far more than a horseshoe bend in the broad North Branch of the Susquehanna River. It offers a glimpse of the location of the lost settlement of French Azilum — a historic site with a link to Queen Marie Antoinette of France — from a perch along an early auto tourism route where the Sullivan Trail overlapped the Roosevelt Highway (Route 6).

The Marie Antoinette Overlook was constructed as a roadside amenity in 1930 and featured two coin-operated panoramic binoculars for the public and a stone commemorative marker dedicated by the Pennsylvania Historical Commission (predecessor of the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission) and the Bradford County Historical Society. The overlook was enhanced in the late 1930s using labor from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The distinctive WPA craftsmanship is evident in the design of the stone retaining walls and the twin stone towers with unusual Châteauesque-style conical roofs. Just across from the overlook stands the Marie Antoinette Inn and six guest cabins built in 1936–38 to accommodate Route 6 travelers. In 1937 this road became part of U.S. Route 6, the nation’s longest early transcontinental highway, traversing the country from Provincetown, Massachusetts, to Long Beach, California. This original portion with the Marie Antoinette Overlook was later bypassed in 1968 when the highway was rerouted.

The view of Azilum from the overlook offers only a hint of the planned settlement that once existed across the Susquehanna River. Conceived in the 1790s as a sanctuary for exiled French aristocrats, Azilum was intended to become a self-sustaining village. Wealthy Philadelphia investors Robert Morris, John Nicholson and Stephen Girard were sympathetic to the French and purchased 1,600 acres of land in Bradford County to serve as a refuge for aristocrats fleeing both the French Revolution and a slave uprising on the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti).

Azilum was laid out by French aristocrats Antoine Omer Talon and Louis-Marie, vicomte de Noailles, with a market square and a grid of streets containing 413 half-acre lots. According to archeologist and historian Louise Welles Murray (1854–1931), Azilum was to have served also as a safe haven for Marie Antoinette, imprisoned in Paris with her children. The Grande Maison, the largest house built in the village, was said to be intended for the queen. All hopes that Azilum might serve as a royal refuge were lost, however, when Marie Antoinette was executed in October 1793.

By 1794 the settlement contained about 30 log houses, a few small shops, a school, a chapel, and a theatre. French refugees also planted orchards and gardens, raised sheep and dairy cows, and built a gristmill and distillery in their new community. Notable visitors to Azilum included Louis Philippe, duke of Chartres, who visited in 1796 and later became the last king of France in 1830. Despite lofty intentions, Azilum did not thrive and many French aristocrats soon left the small settlement in the mountains for larger, more sophisticated cities or returned to France.

All traces of the original village are now gone, but a large, elegant house built in 1836 as a summer home for U.S. congressman John LaPorte remains. LaPorte was born in the Grande Maison in 1798, the only child of French aristocrat and settlement land steward Bartholomew LaPorte and his English-born wife Elizabeth Franklin. The LaPorte House has served as a historic site and house museum open to the public since the 1950s.

In 2009 archeologists from Cornell University conducted excavations and thermal imaging at Azilum, documenting original building foundations and sparking renewed interest in this lost settlement. For decades the LaPorte House was owned and managed as a historic site by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission in conjunction with French Azilum Inc. In 2019 the state transferred ownership of the property to French Azilum Inc. and it remains open to visitors interested in the history of this refuge for exiled French nobles in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains Heritage Region.


Pamela W. Reilly is a historic preservation specialist in the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation office.