The Bug Man

Dec 23, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Of at least one Rock Islander, Benjamin Dann Walsh, it can truly be said that there was some good news and some bad news. The good news was that early on the morning of November 12, 1869, as he was collecting bugs along the Chicago and Rock Island railroad tracks near 34th Street in Rock Island, a Chicago bound train ran over his left leg.

Walsh had emigrated from England to Chicago, and then, in 1850, to Rock Island. He became a successful lumberman and real estate developer, but his real passion was entomology—the study of bugs. He collected them, studied them, and wrote about them.

Walsh was senior editor of The American Entomologist, he published widely in The Prairie Farmer, and other rural magazines, and in 1867 he was appointed the first state entomologist of Illinois. Standards he established are still in use.

Walsh spent his free time collecting bugs. His favorite haunt for collecting was Bailey Davenport's pasture—now Longview Park in Rock Island. On these expeditions, he wore a cork-lined dunce cap on which to pin specimens. That's why the train accident was good news. "Now," he told the doctors, "I'll have a cork leg to pin specimens on, and if I need a cork for my bottles, I can carve one out of my foot."

And now for the bad news. Benjamin Walsh died unexpectedly a year after the accident. The family sold his astounding collection of more than 30,000 bugs to the State of Illinois for $2,500. The new state entomologist, fearing that the collection might be destroyed by fire at Springfield, decided to send the collection to the Academy of Sciences in Chicago for safekeeping. Mrs. Walsh visited to Academy in October of 1871 to make sure the collection was safe. "Absolutely," she was told.

If you know your Illinois history, you already know the bad news. As Mrs. Walsh rode the train back to Rock Island, fire was already sweeping across 2,124 acres of Chicago. Among the victims of the fire were a priceless collection of 30,000 bugs.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.