One of Alaska's most successful businessmen was a Wisconsin farm boy named Austin Eugene "Cap" Lathrop, whose greatest asset was his unstoppable determination. During a career that spanned decades, he would make himself and Alaska richer by developing his interests in coal, oil, copper, lumber, shipping, entertainment, banking, newspapers, moviemaking, and radio. Well before his death at 84, a bronze bust of Lathrop, installed in Fairbanks by his fans, paid tribute to him as "Builder of a Northern Empire."
The young entrepreneur moved to Seattle to help rebuild the town after the Great Fire of June 1889. But Lathrop was more than a philanthropist. Within months, young Lathrop earned the title of contractor by hiring workers to drive horses and clear debris. After his efforts contributed to a population boom that changed Seattle from a town to a city, Lathrop turned his attention to the town of Anacortes on Fidalgo Island. In Anacortes, Lathrop made plans to settle. He began building a railroad and moved his family to the island. He built self-sustaining poultry farms and seemed content to concentrate his attention on the booming town of Seattle.
Lathrop's first major business venture proved to be his first failure. The Panic of 1893 caused Lathrop to reevaluate his options. Looming economic depression forced several growing railroads to go bankrupt. Lathrop's business was not immune. After his investors went bankrupt, he returned to Seattle somewhat defeated. Austin Lathrop met and proposed marriage to Maud Woodcock. But the ceremony would have to wait, he decided, until he determined how he could support his wife.
In the fall of 1895, Lathrop acquired his first vehicle for success: the steamship L.J. Perry. He partnered with an acquaintance known as Captain Kelly and an engineer named John O'Neil. Together they convinced A.E. Barton, an associate at a local meat-packing house, to front them the money to buy the ship. The decision reflected uncanny foresight. Lathrop suspected that there was profit to be made in moving goods from the continental coast to the Territory of Alaska, and believed the Perry was the perfect vessel for his plan.
Lathrop's vision soon proved more prophetic than even he could have imagined. The Perry truly was the perfect ship for guiding goods in and out of Alaska's Cook Inlet. The steamship's relatively small size made the Perry nimble enough to dodge the mud flats and unpredictable tide. It could be propelled by raising sail or burning coal, a mineral that Lathrop and company found in cheap and plentiful supply on the shores of Kachemak Bay.
By the time that rumors of gold in the Klondike were spreading across the continent, Lathrop and Captain Kelly's crew were profiting from transporting the gold-seekers. Now that he was financially secure, Lathrop returned to Seattle, and found that Maud Woodcock had married another. Lathrop remained unattached and able to set his mind to more business.
Lathrop's successes mounted. He had studied for his master's license and took over as captain of the ship. "Cap" bought out his partners on the L.J. Perry and continued to make money pulling less sturdy vessels in the choppy waters en route to Alaska. On February 18, 1901, Lathrop married the widow Mrs. Cosby McDowell in the first official wedding of Valdez, Alaska. Mrs. McDowell and her daughter quickly became celebrities of the town. Lathrop had built Alaska's first power family.
Lathrop's marriage was as unsuccessful as any business gamble he would take. Although the Valdez community adored Mrs. Lathrop and her daughter, Cleo, the pair was ill-suited for Alaska life. They stayed only one year before returning to Seattle. Meanwhile, Lathrop's attention was focused on a struggling oil drilling project in Coal Bay. He was content to let his wife and stepdaughter leave. Mrs. Cosby McDowell Lathrop died in Seattle in 1910, and was mourned by Lathrop and the city of Valdez. Lathrop's failed oil business and marriage left much to be desired, and rather than moving back to the States, Lathrop moved less than 90 miles southeast, to Cordova.
Cap Lathrop still thrived as the manager of the Alaska Transfer Company. While in Cordova, he bought the Arctic Lumber Company, and was soon the town's most famous citizen. Even after he was elected mayor of Cordova in 1911, Lathrop was rarely static, constantly researching new business and mining opportunities for copper and coal. After serving a term in office and declining a second, Lathrop and a partner converted a clothing store into the Empress of Cordova, the first in a chain of theaters Lathrop was to build in Alaska.
When Cap Lathrop began to produce "The Chechahcos," [sic] the first motion picture filmed entirely in Alaska, he had already begun or finished construction of theaters in Cordova, Valdez, and Anchorage. Lathrop had established a credible and consistent income and was free to take more risks. As president of the Healy River Coal Mines Corporation, Lathrop was primed to profit from the nearly completed Alaskan Railroad. In 1927, he soon added another Empress theater, this time in Fairbanks. The Fairbanks Empress was concrete, and silenced many doubters who didn't believe modern building materials could survive the tough winter elements of the Interior. Although he still took an active interest in his businesses in Anchorage and Cordova, Lathrop the known wanderer primarily settled himself in a region many Americans of the time thought unlivable.
In Fairbanks, Lathrop oversaw his coal mining operations, published the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, and served from 1933-1950 as vice president of the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines Board of Trustees. The school was renamed the University of Alaska in 1935, and role of Trustee converted to Regent.
In 1937, Lathrop began construction of a new building in Fairbanks. He planned to use the building to house the News-Miner, but found he had more than enough room for a completely new Alaskan venture. The official dedication of Alaska's first radio station was broadcast from the fourth floor of the Lathrop Building on October 1, 1939. KFAR (Key for Alaska's Riches) brought news and information to once isolated towns and villages. When World War II interrupted American lives, the station served as a military outpost and radio link.
Lathrop's ambition was slowed dramatically by the war and growing debate concerning Alaska's statehood. Regardless, in 1948 he opened KFAR's sister station, KENI Anchorage. Lathrop had established himself as the creator of almost all major conduits of information in Alaska.
Lathrop died as he lived, ambitious and at work. In July 1950, still wiry at the age of 84, he boarded a train to oversee production in the Healy River mine. After the miners' lunch break on July 26, Cap Lathrop went alone to the rail yard. Later the mine timekeeper found the old man lying next to the tracks. None of the miners professed to have seen the accident, and assumed he was likely killed instantly by a loaded rail car. Ironically, it seems that only things capable of stopping Cap Lathrop were his relentless desire to work and a vehicle of his own industry.