In the time of my novel “The Widow Maker” in 1880 the grain trade was important and profitable for the Great Lakes schooner fleet. After the railroads extended their reach west to the rich farm lands of Ohio, Illinois and beyond a golden tide of grain soon made its way east. Some of that grain went to ports on Lake Michigan and Erie and from there was sailed to Buffalo at the Erie Canal’s west end.
In the 1880s Buffalo was the greatest grain handling port in the world and a good deal of credit for that must go to a Buffalo entrepreneur named Joseph Dart. He was shrewd enough to devise a steam powered grain handling system to move grain between schooners and canal boats. He did so with the help of a Scotsman named Robert Dunbar who lived in nearby Black Rock.
Before his elevator, the ships were unloaded one barrel at a time. Grain was hoisted aloft by a tackle above the ship’s hold, weighed and then carried into the storage bins. No more than ten or fifteen bushels at a time were moved and it took all day to unload 2000 bushels. ( A small schooner back then in the 1840s would hold about twice that.)
Once the first steam powered lifting machinery was in use the basic concept was quickly refined and improved. As the volumes of grain moved per hour increased, so too did the size of the ships. Before long 15,000 bushels an hour was the norm and a "Gazelle" sized schooner like widow Mollie's could unload in a few hours.
Bigger, faster, and just in time delivery has been the trend ever since. Today, in part because of Dart’s invention of a steam powered elevator ‘leg’, U.S. farmers have made our country the world’s single largest producer of wheat, corn, oats, and rice.
Great photos of Buffalo’s elevators here https://buffaloah.com/a/childs/87/legs.html