The Tank That Climbed A Mountain

In April 1919, a lone US-built M1917 light tank climbed over 11,000 feet up a mountain in Colorado. We are lucky enough to have some original photos and footage of the tank’s climb up Pikes Peak in the Rocky Mountains.

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The tank with ‘Pikes Peak or Bust’ painted on its hull (US National Archive)

Why was a tank driving up a mountain?

Simply put the expedition was a publicity stunt to help raise cash to pay off America’s war debt. By 1919 the cost of US involvement in World War One had reached $32 billion – that’s around $547 billion today.

The purpose of the stunt was to encourage Americans to purchase ‘Victory Liberty’ War Bonds which would help pay off some of the debt accrued by the war. This was the fifth, and final, round of Liberty Bond sales. The drive began in mid-April 1919, and aimed to sell $4.5 billion of government bonds.

The tank arrived in Colorado Springs at the beginning of April and on the 14th a crowd of nearly 1,000 people watched Mrs W.H.R. Stote, the chairwoman of Colorado Springs’ Victory Liberty loan committee, christened the tank ‘Little Zeb’  – after explorer Brigadier Zebulon Pike – who led an expedition that attempted to climb the mountain in 1806)

Mrs Stote reportedly declared  “I charge you with making the trip to the summit. As the Victory Loan shall not fail, you must make it to the top!” The tank’s commander Sgt. A.H. Worrell, told The Colorado Springs Gazette that he had “driven tanks over trees and trenches on the western front and I am betting we get to the top.”

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The road up to the summit of Pikes Peak, photographed in 1934 (US National Archive)

At the time the 19 mile road up to Pikes Peak was said to be the ‘World’s Highest Motor Drive’ with the summit at 14,115 feet (or 4,302m). Cpl. Howard Brewer, the tank’s driver told reporters “I know we can climb it. Given time, the tank could go to the top of the world.” In terms of publicity having the tank make it up the mountain would certainly have been quite a feat.

On the front of the tank’s hull the words ‘Pike’s Peak or bust’ were painted in white – this is a reference to a phrase coined by prospector’s during the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush of the 1860s.

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The tank on the road up Pikes Peak (Pikes Peak District Library)

The tank was driven by Corporal Howard Brewer and tended by a crew of mechanics and support vehicles. The road which climbed the mountain was unsurfaced and had only been completed in 1916. The tank’s ascent began on April 15, and incredibly over the next two days the tank climbed to 11,440 feet, 13 miles along the road and through several deep snow drifts, reportedly up to 20-feet tall, before a track plate snapped. After repairs the tank and support convoy pressed on – but the tank never made it to the summit. Not because of mechanical failure but unbelievably because it was needed to appear in other Colorado towns as part of the Victory Loan drive.

While the tank may not have reached the very top of the mountain, it unsurprisingly became a record breaker – setting the first elevation record for tanks. Western Union claimed that it also set a distance record for continuous distance travelled and penetrated the farthest into the snow than any other vehicle had ever done at that time of year – battling snow drifts up to 20 feet tall. While the US-built M1917 was never tested in battle the drive up the mountain proved it was a capable, hardy vehicle – demonstrating the tank’s abilities.

Bibliography:

Various photos and contemporary footage taken from the US National Archives (source)

Additional photos held by the The Manitou Springs Historical Society (source)

‘Army’s Tank Assault on Pikes Peak Was About More Than Being Macho’, The Gazette, M.L. Cavanaugh, (source)

U.S. Economy in World War I, Economic History Association, (source)


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