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German woman retracing great-great-grandfather’s path to U.S. makes stop in Niagara Falls

Sibylle Randoll’s grand plan to re-create her great-great-grandfather’s journey from Germany to Montana while wearing a vivid blue 1880s dress started with a page he wrote about Niagara Falls.

“I left the train for a few hours to visit the grand Falls,” wrote Otto Dahl in his memoir about his side trip to the Falls on July 3, 1881. “On my way there, I could already sense the mist from far away, while the thundering rushing of the mass of water reached my ears.”

This week, Randoll, from Stuttgart, Germany, had a photo of the page from the memoir with her as she walked across the pedestrian bridge to Canada to retrace her ancestor’s 135-year-old travel route.

Randoll, who was in Buffalo and Niagara Falls on Monday, first read Dahl’s description a few years ago. She thought of her own visit to the Falls with her Michigan host family when she was a 15-year-old exchange student. She wanted to come back to the U.S., this time to try to re-create Dahl’s entire trip, as close to the 19th-century style as she could get.

“I didn’t know that he’d gone to the U.S.,” said Randoll, speaking by phone from an Amtrak train headed to Chicago from Buffalo on Tuesday. “I was like, ‘Hey, wait. I’ve been to the Falls, too. Maybe I can see these other places, too.’ ”

Now 26, Randoll is the same age as her outdoor-adventure-loving ancestor was when he left Germany for America after a fight with his father, who owned a leather factory. Intending to research Native American leather-making techniques, he set up a tannery for fur traders when he got to Montana.

Randoll has kept her ambition for her trip open-ended.

“I’m not looking for something specific,” she said. “I’m just traveling his traces and see what I find.” She plans to travel through October.

She also is exercising her own tourism marketing skills by recounting her adventure in her “explories.de” blog, which she named by melding the words “explore” with “stories.”

Her social media trail of posts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube with the hashtag #barmen2bozeman has attracted the attention of steampunk fans of fantasy fiction rooted in the 19th century.

In order to travel in slow, vintage style and better steep herself in the old ways, Randoll has sometimes worn a brilliant blue dress with a big skirt and corset waist, tailor-made from 1880s styles she researched on Pinterest.

She was wearing it, along with a hat and with closed parasol in hand, while waiting for her local host near a bus stop in Riverside when Susan Cholewa, a Black Rock resident and high school French teacher, drove by.

“I rolled down the window and said, ‘What’s your story?’ ” said Cholewa, who posed for a picture with Randoll and posted the story on Facebook. “It was one of those crazy moments. How do you not ask someone at a bus stop dressed from the 1880s what they’re doing?”

Randoll first got the idea to retrace her ancestor’s trip when she was studying for her master’s degree in tourism and happened upon the old memoir at her sister’s house.

According to Dahl’s 1920 account, he had left Germany after a “severe dispute with my father, who told me shortly and succinctly I should go to America and earn my bread from foreign people, just like my younger brother Rudolf. It was agreed upon that the Dahls were pigheads. Without answering, I decided to obey to the request to leave the father’s house at the soonest possible.”

While Randoll doesn’t know exactly what they fought about, she imagines it had something to do with Dahl’s being one of 10 children and wanting assurances about his place in the family leather business.

The idea about the trip stayed with her. Once she got a job at a Munich marketing firm, she started saving up for the expense. She quit this spring. This month, she traveled to England, where she boarded the Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 headed for New York.

The trip across the ocean took her great-great-grandfather two weeks on a steam ship that started from Germany.

Noticing how the slow pace affects travel is one of her curiosities, like the conversation on the ocean liner when there was little to see out the window but water.

“Dinner talk was about seeing other ships,” Randoll said. “It’s an amazing experience to really, really travel slowly.”

The period dress, cumbersome and hot, has helped, too.

“It reminds me that travel has not been as easy as it is today,” she said. “It gives me the idea that you didn’t have a suitcase with rolls on it.”

Her extended clan – parents, two older brothers, a sister and aunts and uncles – have delighted in her discoveries, as has her 88-year-old grandmother, who translated Dahl’s journals from old German.

“It has already brought together the family,” said Randoll. “Everyone’s following and everyone’s loving it.”

She’s looking forward to Montana, where Dahl lived with a farmer and set up a small tannery, and going to the landmarks he sketched, like the rock formation “Devil’s Slide” and a “Thousand Mile Tree” in Utah that once marked the railroad’s terminus.

“I’m going to go there and draw them,” she said. “I want to see the sights he saw. See places that have a unique meaning for me.”

On Sunday, her train from New York arrived here, like it did with her great-great-grandfather aboard 135 years ago. On Monday, a picture-perfect day with a bright blue sky, she walked around the Falls in her blue dress and people seemed to stop her every 20 seconds and ask for a picture with her.

“I was a living photo wall,” she laughed.

Midway across the bridge to Canada, she took out her phone and reread the page from her ancestor’s memoir that she had photographed.

“It was a sheer overwhelming view which I saw,” he wrote, “the enormous masses of water of the powerful river which connects the Erie-Lake with the Ontario-Lake, fall down at a width of 900 meters effervescent and with numbing noise; dispersing 500,000 cubic meters of water per minute.”

She tried to imagine what it was like for him to see the falls for the first time without an internet preview. She stopped to breathe and take it all in. Already, unusual and good things were happening, like when the German Consulate discovered her on Twitter and invited her to join the German-American Steuben Parade in New York City in September.

She is looking forward to whatever else lies ahead.

“It’s like I discovered this guidebook from the past,” Randoll said, “and I’m taking it and I’ll see what happens.”

email: mkearns@buffnews.com