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A Tour of Milford, Pennsylvania

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Photo: Whitney Lawson

There were two things I knew about Milford before I ever saw the place. First, it is the site of a famous and very beautiful natural phenomenon, the name for which is archaic and not found in contemporary dictionaries: fluviarchy, meaning a network of waterfalls. Milford is set on an escarpment 100 feet above the Delaware River, so streams flowing through and around the town must cascade down wooded cliffs to reach it. As they do, they form what is said to be the most dramatic fluviarchy east of the Rockies.

Second, the town used to host the annual Milford Science Fiction Writers’ Conference, which drew all the heavyweights: Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein, Harlan Ellison, L. Ron Hubbard. One year Kurt Vonnegut attended, and afterward he worked Milford into his novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965). His protagonist crashes the conference and blurts out drunkenly, “I love you sons of bitches... You’re the only ones...crazy enough to realize that life is a space voyage, and not a short one, either....” The sci-fi conference is no longer held in Milford, but on my first visit to the town, I was alert for even the slightest trace of its aura.

“Climb to the top of the Knob,” my waitress at the Milford Diner told me at breakfast, “and you’ll understand what all the fuss is about.” The Knob is a 400-foot bluff that towers above one end of Broad Street, the town’s main thoroughfare. It’s a steep 20-minute climb to the top, and when I reached it I could see all of Milford, a comely village of tree-lined streets and handsome Victorian buildings with bell towers, gables, steeples, and cupolas in profusion. The Delaware River flowed past in a gentle southward arc. Both river and town were set into a wide green panorama extending to a distant periphery of cliffs. Not a single smokestack or other industrial intrusion lay in sight. Milford looked like a Currier & Ives print come to life.

Like many other New Yorkers in the aftermath of 9/11, I had started thinking about getting a place in the country as a weekend retreat. My old friend Sean Strub, the publisher of POZ magazine, had bought a hunting lodge next to a rushing trout stream in Pike County and fallen in love with the all but untouched Victorian village nearby. Soon he started the glossy Milford Magazine, and then, with former corporate executive Richard Snyder, bought a dilapidated, 120-year-old Italianate building—the Hotel Fauchère, on Broad Street. It was on the National Register of Historic Places, but its first floor had been converted into doctors’ offices and the rest was vacant. Strub and Snyder set about restoring it to its original splendor.

The Fauchère is now a major reason people visit Milford. It is only one of many historic buildings that locals have carefully restored, but as one can tell from the names in Strub’s copies of the Fauchère’s old guest registers—William Tecumseh Sherman, Sarah Bernhardt, Andrew Carnegie, Mae West, Babe Ruth, and Presidents Roosevelt, Roosevelt, and Kennedy—it has played a lively role in Milford’s history. In the late 18th century, when life here revolved around logging camps and bluestone quarries, a circuit judge named John Biddis bought the land that is now Milford, laid out streets in a tidy grid, divided them into parcels, and went to Philadelphia to sell them. Biddis extolled Milford’s scenic beauty and the purity of its air as a respite from the increasingly dirty city. (It also helped that, because Milford was 900 feet above sea level and home to a colony of bats, it was virtually free of mosquitoes.) The pitch appealed to an affluent clientele, who engaged some of the best architects of the day to build houses on their new plots. James Pinchot, a wallpaper manufacturer from a local lumber-rich family, set his sights the highest of all. In 1863, he hired Calvert Vaux, the codesigner of Central Park, to create an elegant Second Empire post office for Milford, and a few years later he retained Richard Morris Hunt, the architect of Biltmore, the Vanderbilt estate, to design a lordly mansion for himself—the magnificent, turreted Grey Towers, high on a hill at the edge of town. Today, of the 655 buildings in Milford’s historic district, 400 have been officially declared “historically significant.”

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