Rail attorney, historian Byron Olsen dies

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Byron “Barney” Olsen and his 1977 Town and Country Station Wagon in Dresser, Wis. in 2008.
Steve Glischinski
ST. PAUL, Minn. – Byron “Barney” Olsen, who balanced a career in railroad law for Great Northern, Burlington Northern and Soo Line while pursuing his interest in streetcar and railroad history, died in St. Paul last month of a brain tumor at 84. As an attorney for the Soo, he was one of the key figures in persuading the Milwaukee Road’s bankruptcy court to award the railroad to Soo Line instead of the Chicago & North Western. He detailed the transaction and how it played out in the April 2013 Trains Magazine.

Known to his friends as “Barney,” Olsen’s first rail love was streetcars. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of traction systems and traveled widely to ride and photograph them. He also turned his camera on railroads, and was well known in Minnesota for his excellent work documenting passenger trains in the Twin Cities area on Kodachrome from the 1950s through the 1960s.

Olsen served as one of the early presidents of the Minnesota Transportation Museum, which preserved Twin City Rapid Transit Co. Streetcar No. 1300. MTM restored an original segment of TCRT right-of-way to operate the car and several others as the museum fleet grew. Today it is part of the Minnesota Streetcar Museum.

A graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School, Olsen went to work for the Great Northern Railway in 1967 at its St. Paul headquarters, and remained after the Burlington Northern merger in 1970. Later in the decade he moved across town to Minneapolis-based Soo Line, where he served as general counsel. The president of the Soo served on the board of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth, and when he retired from the board in the 1980s, Olsen replaced him – and remained on the board until his death. According to Museum Executive Director Ken Buehler, he was LSRM’s longest serving board member.

In 1985, Olsen argued to Federal Bankruptcy Court Judge Thomas R. McMillen that while Soo Line’s $571 million bid for the Milwaukee Road was less than Chicago & North Western’s $786 million offer, it was in the public interest to award the railroad to the Soo, since it would not abandon track and lay off employees as C&NW promised to do. McMillen accepted the argument, and shocked the railroad industry be awarding the Milwaukee to Soo Line. After the Soo Line, Olsen worked in transportation law at the Felhaber law firm in Minneapolis until retiring in 2000.

He wrote two photo books on his favorite railroad, the Great Northern: Great Northern Railway, 1945-1970 Photo Archive, Volumes I and II, the latter containing mostly his own photo work from the 1950s and 1960s. He was co-author of the book Twin City Lines, 1940s about the Twin Cities streetcar system. Always free to share his knowledge, he shared his stories of riding and photographing trains out of Union Depot in the 1960s and 1970s at St. Paul Union Depot Train Days in 2016.

Olsen’s other passion was automobiles. He wrote photo books on Chevrolet, Buick, Hudson, Nash, and Oldsmobile cars. Other books covered the history of the station wagon and American auto factories, among others. He authored a regular column for the magazine Old Cars and owned several classic cars, including a 1930s Lincoln sedan and a station wagon, of course.

Olsen married Alis Mortensen in 1956. In addition to his wife, Olsen is survived by daughter Carla Larsen; son Peter; two granddaughters; and a brother.
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