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"Blind Nick" and "Capt. Slivers"

My  research of Blind Nick and
Capt. Slivers. is an on-going project;
it is far from finished. This is a
very rough edit of what I've found to date.

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My research interests in south central Alaska are varied. I enjoy the "nuts and bolts" type info such as WHO came into Alaska; WHEN they come to Alaska; WHY they come to Alaska, etc. However, certain  indigenous locals, like "Blind Nick" and his brother "Capt. Slivers" McNeil have interested me for a long time. They were truly interesting people who overcame major obstacles and adversities to lead full and productive lives.

Nick McNeil (known as "Blind Nick") and his brother Alec Slivers McNeil (known as "Capt. Slivers") were part of the large McNeil family of Knik. I do not know who their biological father was, but they were raised by Malcolm J. McNeil(of Colorado)and their Dena'ina mother, Anna/Annie.

Anna/Annie had 6 children when she joined Malcolm McNeil: Nick, Matrona, Alec, Nicholi, Stephan and Mary. Anna/Annie and Malcolm McNeil had one son together (Tommy) and then two more children were born to Anna/Annie outside of the marriage (Myrtle and Victor). I'm told by a McNeil family member, that Mrytle and Victor were raised as McNeil's, but their biological father was Frank Crabb.

Blind Nick and his brother Capt. Slivers were both rugged and very capable men. By most accounts, Nick was born about 1880 and lost his site when he was in his late 40's; his probate papers say he died in 1953.

Capt. Slivers military registration papers say he was born in 1886 at Matanuska, however a 1930 census listed his birth year as 1893 and the 1940 census listed his birth year as 1891. Capt. Slivers froze to death near Wasilla in 1942. Neither brother ever married or had children that I know of.

According to a book called, Shem Pete's Alaska, "Blind Nick" lived on Upper Rabbit Slough (in the 1940's) near the Matanuska townsite, in a cabin made of creosoted railroad ties.  Russell Annabel, a novelist who wrote Alaskan adventure stories with characters named "Tex Cobb" and "Blind Nick" based those characters on true Matanuska Valley residents of the same names.

The following Anchorage newspaper article (written in 1948) describes Blind Nick quite well:


Icy roads or darkness do not keep 73 year old "Blind Nick" from making his almost daily trek to the little town of Wasilla from his cabin 3/4 of a mile down the road. With his trusty two sticks to guide him and creepers fitted over his shoe packs, "Blind Nick" walks the distance in half an hour with ease. He buys groceries in small quantities and carries them home in a pack on his back. In his cabin, where he lives alone, he cooks his own food on a wood heater, cuts kindling and packs water from a nearby well.

Although blind for the last twenty years, his main diversion is walking around the countryside visiting his friends.

"Blind Nick" McNeil, a Native, was born in the Matanuska area and has lived all his life in this section of the country, living many years at Knik. For the past nine years, he has made his home near Wasilla.

A territorial pension takes care of Nick's modest needs, which he spends wisely, taking precautions to keep a well stocked wood pile during the winter months.  Always cheerful, he enjoys talking with strangers and has an unusual memory. When "Blind Nick" cashes his pension check at the local store, he asks the storekeeper which is the twenty dollar bill, the ten, the five and the ones. He then rolls them carefully with the twenty inside, then a ten and a five with the ones on the outside. The next time he shops, he lays a bill on the counter and knows just what denomination it is.  Silver coins are very easy for him to distinguish.  

Several years ago, Nick often walked to Palmer, a distance of 12 miles. By counting the cross roads along the way, he knew just where he was going. One late afternoon, while returning from Palmer, he related he missed a cross road because there was a car parked there.  He became lost and wandered around all night.  since that time, Nick confines his hikes to a four mile jaunt down the old Knik road to visit his friend of many years, Theodore Wasilla.  There he visits and spends the night, returning home the next day.

"Blind Nick" has his own system for getting around, which no doubt takes experience and patience but the main thing is that it works.  He has various markers along the way. By the side of the road, in front of his cabin he has a stick marker and here he turns into the path which leads him home, about one hundred feet off the road.  The Community Hall, a large log structure at the end of Wasilla's main street is one of his landmarks. A little further down it, is the telephone pole near the coffee shop.  From here on, there's nothing to it. He walks straight to the local store. Here a telephone pole, a few feet from the building and the end of the sidewalk, act as guides.

When Nick makes his weekly visit to his friend Theodore, he walks straight from the telephone pole in front of the local store, down to the railroad tracks, about a hundred yards, crosses the tracks and down the old Knik Road.  Using sticks, the roadside ditch leads him down the highway.  
Time is not all important in the life of "Blind Nick", but when he gets curious about the hour of day, he pulls out his watch from which the crystal has been removed, feels the hand and he never misses.
(end of newspaper article)

In 1950, Blind Nick narrowly escaped death when someone intentionally tried to run over him and Annie (Stump) Stephan as they walked along Wasilla Fishhook Road (Anchorage Times 1950)

Blind Man Steps Off Road To Miss Death

Two law enforcement agencies are carrying on a joint search today for a hit-and-run driver who fatally injured Annie Stephan, 64 year old native woman, early Wednesday on the Willow Creek road near Wasilla.  Mrs. Stephan, member of a large and widely known clan, was killed when a speeding vehicle bore down on her blind companion, Nick McNeil.  Mrs. Stephan's neck was broken by the impact.  Her skull was fractured and she was badly cut.  McNeil, known in the area as "Blind Nick" heard the car or truck approaching and stepped off the road.  However, he was injured when Mrs. Stephan's body was hurled across the road with such force as to knock him down.  McNeil's shouts for help aroused the dead woman's children who were asleep in the Stephan cabin about 100 yards away.  The driver of the death vehicle, meanwhile left the scene.  McNeil was unable to tell whether the vehicle was a car or truck but told investigators that it was running without a muffler.  On that slender clue, Deputy Marshal Bill Bouwens of Palmer and Patrolman Stanley Laird of the Highway patrol have been trying to find the driver. The spot where the accident happened is about a mile north of Wasilla on a road known both as Willow Creek Road and as Fishhook Road. Funeral services were held for Mrs. Stephan at Knik.
(end of newspaper article)

NOTE: In a personal notebook of Thomas "Pat" Carter (who was a friend of "Blind Nick's"), he listed the people who lived on Fishhook Road (mid to late 1940's).  At mile 1, he lists Blind Nick and Rufe and Annie Stephan with children Irene, Doris and James. A side note says that Victor McNeil owned the land that Blind Nick's cabin was sitting on. Rufe Stephan's wife, Annie, is the woman who was killed in the above article; she was the sister of John Stump.


The following is an excerpt from a 2003 interview that I did with May Carter who was the U.S. Commissioner in Wasilla from 1944-1959.

"Blind Nick used to be a teacher at the Eklutna School.  He was a very intelligent man and he spoke good English.  He was completely blind and he would make his way all over this valley.  He had sticks he carried so he could feel the edge of the road, people watched out for him.  He would make his way all over, and it was fantastic.  I remember there was a school teacher that lived right across from the Post Office and one day she told me she was sitting at her dressing table in her bedroom and there was a window looking out onto Main Street, and she was sitting there fixing her hair and the wind was blowing and wind seems to confuse people who are blind.  My brother was blind and he would get lost when the wind would blow.  Anyway, here this man was standing out in the middle of the road, looking right square at her and said, “help me! help me!”.  It was just as though he could see her.  Whether he sensed her being there, I don’t know, and later on, some how or other, of course, the Native people drank whenever they got it…well, he was drunk and laying in the middle of the road and someone had run over his leg and never stopped.  Someone found him and took him to the hospital, fortunately it wasn’t broken but he was laid up for quite a while.  He had a cabin out of Wasilla about a mile out Fishhook."

(end of interview excerpt)

Capt. Alex Slivers McNeil

Alec Slivers McNeil, more commonly known as "Capt. Slivers" was the small but strong and self reliant brother of "Blind Nick" McNeil. At only 4' 8" tall, with a humped back and a stiff right leg that gave him an easily recognizable gait; Slivers was easy to spot as he walked all over the Valley (some sources say his sister Mary also had a humped back).

Alec was a strong, industrious man. He delivered freight by dog team; he was an avid and very successful hunter; he chopped wood for people; he ran a trap line; he was an excellent mechanic and even owned his own Ford truck in 1929; he drove everywhere until the "auto tax collector made Capt. Slivers come through with a license for his car" (according to the Herning diaries).

Slivers loved music and often listened to Herning's radio at the general store in Wasilla. He lived in a small cabin at mile one of the Wasilla Fishhook Road and could often be seen walking in the ditch alongside the road to town.

Valley resident Bruce Graham used to give "Slivers" a ride when he saw him.  Mr. Graham's son, Robert, wrote about Capt. Slivers: "...he moved steady long the ditch's edge with his rolling gimpy gait. If you passed him along the gravel road and he caught your eye, he always seemed to be smiling. Whenever we came upon him going our way, Dad gave him a ride in our Model A pickup. It only took one trip to town in the front seat to realize that he carried the aromas of his meager avocation as a trapper.....Bill Bouwens the Deputy U.S. Marshall took an interest in the general well being of the tribal remnants that lived near Slivers little shack....[Bouwens] carried a huge first aid kit that included the basics to make initial bodily repairs for major cuts, bruises and even broken bones.....I was in town one weekend and spotted Slivers coming out of Koslosky's. Even from the street I could see a boil the size of an orange on the side of his neck.....Bill Bouwens lanced the boil on Slivers neck while he sat on the tailgate of his car...and provided a whole bottle of aspirin for pain and fever."

A few years later, the Graham family spotted "Slivers" walking with crutches and a homemade peg leg. They gave him a ride and found out that he had fallen while tending his beaver trap line. Deputy Bouwens had set Slivers leg, assembled a splint and built a peg leg for him out of a small birch limb crotch so that Capt. Slivers could get around.

In 1942, Capt. Slivers was found frozen to death near Wasilla. In Herning's diary , he wrote: "Slivers found frozen to death near his cabin at mile 1, went home drunk, failed to arrive, first victim of Wasilla Cocktail Bar".  Four days later, he wrote: "Capt. Slivers buried on knoll back of his cabin, mile 1".

On the front page of the Anchorage Times 12/22/1942 was a short mention of Alec Slivers McNeil's death: "A report reaching Anchorage today reveals the death of 'Capt. Slivers' McNeil, a native who lived in the Wasilla District for many years. "Slivers", as he was known to all who knew him, is said to have frozen to death last Friday night on the trail between Wasilla and the point where he had killed a moose.  He had been in to Wasilla after downing the animal and it was on his return trip that he died. He was about 40 years old. It is reported here, that he was buried by his native friends in their own burial ground."

Note from Coleen: The article says he was about 40 when he died, but Slivers military registration papers say he was born in 1886. Other sources give Slivers a birth date between 1886-1894; with that in mind, at his death, he would have been between 48 and 56; my opinion is that he was a lot closer to 48 when he died.
I've never been able to find out, for sure, why Alec Slivers McNeil was called Capt. Slivers. Wayne Bouwens, the son of Marshall Bill Bouwens, told me that he seems to remember his father saying that Slivers McNeil ran a small boat between Knik and Anchorage at one time; perhaps that is how Slivers obtained the nickname "Capt.", I just don't know for sure.

Alwin H. Wheatley, took a photo of Alec Slivers McNeil(about 1910), it is now in the Consortium Library at UAA. Orvlle G. Herning also took a photo of Slivers in about 1910 and it is at UAF.


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