7 Walks in 7 Days: Alexander von Humboldt Was a Celebrity in His Day

Alexander von who? Read on. Photo by Anita Highton.

By Marjorie Cohen

As the weather improves, it’s a good time to explore some parts of the UWS that may be new to you. Whether you’re a solitary walker or you prefer to walk with friends, do be sure to get out and walk. Governor Cuomo does it so why shouldn’t you?

Over the next week, we will publish articles about walks to seven spots — including some of my favorites and some recommended by friends. Six involve grass and trees and other wonders of nature and one is on Broadway, the street that was once the crowded, energetic commercial center of our UWS lives.

Leave Zoom and your home “office” behind and get out and take a look at some of the splendors of our neighborhood. It will remind you of why you wanted to live here in the first place.

We’ll proceed from south to north, starting at 77th Street. Here is the first:

Alexander von Humboldt Statue/ West 77th Street and CPW 

Alexander who? You may not know who von Humboldt was but there was a  time when just about everyone on every continent knew his name and all about the amazing things he had done. Proof? There are 1600 locations around the world that honor him and Central Park is one of them.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Humboldt, a true Renaissance man, was a celebrity. Here’s what Ralph Waldo Emerson, pretty famous in his own right, wrote about him: “Humboldt was one of those wonders of the world, like Aristotle, like Julius Caesar… who appear from time to time, as if to show the possibilities of the human mind, the force and the range of the faculties–a universal man.”

In 1859, when Humboldt died, “the entire civilized world went into mourning”, according to Tom Miller, creator of the excellent blog A Daytonian in Manhattan.

Humboldt, a Prussian whiz-kid, was an explorer, naturalist and geographer who set out in 1799 on what would be a five year exploration of South America. Once back home, he dedicated 20 more years to writing and publishing his exhaustive and groundbreaking findings. An intrepid adventurer, he was indisputably the most famous scientist of his age who lived an action-pack life which included climbing volcanoes in the Andes and racing through anthrax-infected Siberia.

The Central Park statue of Humboldt was commissioned by a committee of prominent German-American New Yorkers and in 1869  was unveiled at the entrance to Central Park at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street. The unveiling was a spectacular event.  The celebration lasted all day and included a parade and a banquet and when it got dark, a torchlight procession. A crowd of 25,000 gathered around the statue for the unveiling and Miller quotes one reporter’s description of that crowd of “thousands upon thousands” as a “sturdy mass of Teutons…right up front” with “the fair sex …numerically equal to the sterner half of mankind.”

That same reporter went on to note that the women were there to do more than just observe. When the German chorus sang, accompanied by a full orchestra, “even the ladies present joined heartily in the chorus.”

In 1983 Humboldt’s statue was moved to where it now stands, across from the street from the Museum of Natural History.

COLUMNS, HISTORY | 4 comments | permalink
    1. Nancy Wight says:

      I know who Humboldt is.

    2. Nelson says:

      Thank you! I already love this series. Great history.

    3. Nancy says:

      Great Idea! Look forward to the next one.