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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Still deadly after 67 years, James Dean crash site a landmark for legends, rebels and lost potential

James Dean may have been the most famous person to die at the intersection of highways 41 and 46 in California's San Luis Obispo County, but he wasn't the first — or the last. Not by a long shot.

CHOLAME, Calif. (CN) — On a barren stretch of highway in California's San Luis Obispo County, semi trucks and weekend travelers barrel past a barbed wire fence adorned with a curious assortment of sunglasses, bras and license plates.

For decades, visitors have stopped to reflect at this intersection of highways 46 and 41, many of them leaving mementos they feel connect them to the tragedy that happened here so long ago.

“That site is always going to be a place where people go and wonder what might have been,” said Southern California author Chris Epting.

On Sept. 30, 1955, James Dean was speeding near this unofficial roadside memorial when a college student suddenly pulled out in front of him, causing a collision that would take the promising actor — to quote the Eagles — “down the road to eternity.” He was just 24.

While the accident was no more tragic than the dozens of other fatal wrecks that would occur on this “Blood Alley,” Dean’s premature death would create its own cultural mythos.

“The celebrity-driven fascination with the death of the beautiful starts with this one,” said Epting, whose book “James Dean Died Here: The Locations of America’s Pop Culture Landmarks” details hundreds of culturally significant locations across the United States. “I think that’s what created this pop culture ground zero.”

The site has drawn visitors from around the world, including movie stars such as Clint Eastwood, Martin Sheen, William Devane and James Woods. Many stop for food at the nearby Jack Ranch Café, a historic restaurant that closed for good in August. Others, like Epting, seek out the actual site of the crash.

“There’s always a reflective moment when I think about that night,” he said.

Dean, 24, was driving his new Porsche 550 Spyder from Southern California to a race in Salinas. Along the way, there were occasional stops — he was famously photographed getting gas in Kern County — before Dean and his mechanic changed course and headed toward Paso Robles for dinner. It was one of many decisions that detoured his fate.

“If one thing had been different,” Epting wonders, mentioning the speeding ticket Dean received in Bakersfield two hours before the crash. “He’s always one second away from living.”

Dean was the only one killed in the collision with a 1950 Ford Custom Coupe, the driver of which walked away with minor injuries.

This police photo shows the mangled Porsche actor James Dean drove in the accident that killed him.

While many locals saw Dean's mangled sports car afterward, few of those motorists would have known the driver by name in September 1955.  At that time, Dean had only starred in one film, “East of Eden,” which had been released that spring. But his performances in two posthumous releases, “Giant” and “Rebel without a Cause,” would make him a household name everywhere.

And not just because of his untimely death.

Jonathan Kuntz, a film historian and lecturer at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, said Dean was an impressive actor, who channeled a momentous postwar movement.

“He’s not only a method actor with all that angst, but he’s also part of the new youth culture that’s exploding,” Kuntz said, noting the simultaneous rise of rebellious rock and roll. “At that moment, James Dean seems to embody all that troubled youth of the 50s in one person, and he seems to have a great way of expressing it in his pictures.”

While many prominent actors would claim him as an inspiration, even rockers like Elvis Presley channeled Dean’s defiant spirit.

“He was the first counterculture anti-hero,” Epting said.

And yet, just as his celebrity was taking off, it ended in a cinematic fashion that oddly suited a rebel — driving a race car dubbed "Little Bastard" in a remote part of California that could easily have doubled as a moody film location.

“When I first went there, I was so taken aback by the drama of that place,” said Epting, who is preparing to publish an anniversary edition of “James Dean Died Here” with several new entries.

To this day, the only nearby structure is the café, which sits on property owned by the Hearst Corporation. On a recent weekend, two hawks flew near the building, as signs warned of rattlesnakes on the straw-covered ground. In the café parking area, a memorial funded by Japanese businessman Seita Ohnishi in 1977 reflected traffic speeding along Highway 46, a thoroughfare frequently traveled by Fresno residents escaping to the beach. Some 900 yards east of the café, the barbed wire memorial sits closer to where Dean died — and where dozens more have perished in the years before and since.

In 1977, Japanese businessman Seita Ohnishi funded this James Dean memorial, which stands near the recently closed Jack Ranch Café, about 900 yards from the crash site. Ohnishi owns 1,600 negatives taken by Sanford Roth, who followed Dean in his final days, including the day of the crash. (Pat Pemberton/Courthouse News)

While the intersection is slightly different than it was in 1955, the current design — referred to as the “Cholame Y” — is flawed, resulting in fatalities three times the state average, according to Caltrans data cited by the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

“There’s something that doesn’t feel right when you’re there,” Epting said.

The state announced that it would fund a fix to the dangerous intersection in 2018, but the work was scrapped the following year when Governor Gavin Newsom diverted gas tax money to rail projects instead of highways. Yet, as fatal crashes continued to garner headlines here, community backlash compelled lawmakers to reallocate money toward widening the road. Caltrans announced the plans in January, but it would not answer questions about the intersection’s history and design, nor would it offer updates on the taxpayer-funded repairs.

“We are unable to comment on matters before the department that may involve potential or ongoing litigation,” Caltrans spokesperson Alexa Bertola said in a statement.

The site of the accident was dedicated the James Dean Memorial Junction in 2005. The actual road Dean drove on, U.S. Route 466, was parallel to Highway 46, just across the barbed wire fence pictured here. (Pat Pemberton/Courthouse News)

Those who have died near the James Dean Memorial Junction are remembered mostly by friends and family, but Dean’s name has become a brand — a tribute not only to his acting but also the intriguing question of his potential.

Moviegoers followed the long and diverse career paths of slightly older Dean contemporaries like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, Kuntz said, but the crash limited Dean’s credited filmography to three, leaving it to us to fill in the blanks.

“James Dean was a brilliant guy,” Kuntz said. “He was absorbing things all the time, from culture, from music, from movies, and he was probably quite capable of reinventing himself as time went on.”

On the other hand, a person known to channel inner torment might also have succumbed to some of the excesses of the 60s and 70s, Kuntz added.

That’s the mystique. Just as we’ll never know if Buddy Holly — who died in a plane crash three years after Dean — would have gone psychedelic in the 60s or disco in the 70s, we’ll never know if Dean would have given us a Col. Kurtz or a Lt. Rambo.

Yet, there might not be a greater Hollywood icon — one often associated with the phrase Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.

“He certainly personified that,” Kuntz said. “But it also happened so early in his life. So he gets immortality, but he didn’t have much fun when he was mortal. He didn’t have enough time, and it’s really a shame.”

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