You have probably heard of the basic circumstances of James Dean’s accident in September 1955. He was driving west in his Porsche 550 Spyder on CA Hwy 46 when a Ford, driven by Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed, turned off eastbound 46 crossing Dean’s westbound lane to go onto Hwy 41. Dean and Turnupseed collided, killing Dean almost immediately.
Now a bit about me and driving – I view most trips more as journeys and a car is not a mere conveyance to a destination but a partner in making a journey.
In 2006 I decided to drive back to Minnesota for my niece’s wedding in my then 20 year old 300,000 mile Mercedes 300E. And I didn’t come back to California the most direct way but via West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee and, because Katrina was recent, New Orleans. I made the loop in 7,492 miles in 14 days.
I just got back from a Lexicans get together at (where else?) Shakespeare’s in San Diego.
Anyway I thought it would be interesting to come back to N California via Highway 46, the last road James Dean travelled. And because a Lexican in attendance had not seen Hearst Castle or Hwy 1, I would follow that route with pictures.
Highway 46 is a state highway that goes east and west, from Highway 99 north of Bakersfield all the way to the coast near San Simeon. Bakersfield is the first major town in the Central Valley once you leave Southern California and cross the Tehachapi Mountains via the Grapevine into the vast Central Valley.
Highway 41 is another east-west state highway that starts from the eastern end 100 miles or so north of 46 at Fresno and heads westerly in a southwest direction, until it joins with highway 46 in the tiny town of Cholame.
It was here that Dean would have his accident.
I didn’t follow Dean’s exact route.
Interstate 5, one of the 2 major north-south arteries (with Hwy 99 being the other one) didn’t exist and I was somewhat pressed for time. I picked up 46 at Lost Hills off I-5, some 21 miles west of Dean’s probable start to 46 at Wasco, off Hwy 99. I wanted to get to San Simeon on the coast. Dean had to get to a race in Salinas, near Monterey. Had he not had his accident, he undoubtedly would have taken Hwy 101 from 46 north to Salinas.
Ironically we both got onto 46 in a similar time frame, at dusk with the sun setting in our eyes. For most of the drive it wasn’t directly in my eyes but at the 10-11 o’clock position. Dean drove it in a September and I was in November so I can’t say for sure how different the sun would have been but it couldn’t have been much different.
Both of us had smaller German cars in a silver shade – mine was more of a dark silver and his more of a pure silver. This is important as it was determined to be a factor in the accident.
I am driving along, a bit tired having left San Diego in the late afternoon with the sun almost gone. Both of us had simply our destinations in mind.
With the sun close to the horizon, suddenly I saw a pickup truck hauling a large horse trailer going in the opposite direction veering left right in front of me. I applied the brakes and he turned without any more fanfare. He was about 100 yards in front of me and by my braking it was a “non-event”. I suppose had I not braked it could have been more exciting but in that short 2-3 seconds I could see the accident through James Dean’s eyes, more than any reading could have shown me.
I had no idea that 41 converged at this point and the pickup, going at maybe 40-50 mph – simply veered off 46 with a 45 degree turn onto the beginning of Hwy 41 going northeast. In the time this occurred, a state sign declaring this to be the James Dean Memorial Junction flashed by the corner of my right eye and it was over. I thought for a moment of going back and taking a picture of this but with the traffic and lighting conditions thought that this idea was one of my dumber thoughts. I don’t mind dying so much as dying doing something stupid and preventable.
Dean had maybe a second to do the right thing, maybe less if his initial sighting was with a shorter distance. The only safe thing he could have done in my opinion was to swerve left and then hope there was no oncoming traffic behind Turnupseed. And according to some of the accounts I read there was a driver behind the Ford.
In this time frame he probably couldn’t have seen the car following Turnupseed so he was probably doomed to have a collision with someone or something, even if he had swerved to the left.
I don’t think James Dean had much of a chance of surviving this unscathed.
And how did the color factor in to the finding?
With the setting sun and the very low Porsche 550 Spyder, investigators felt that Turnupseed would have had a hard time seeing Dean.
Did the pickup driver see my car or just assume he could make the interchange safely? I can’t tell you obviously. My old SL is much taller than the 550 but I would think the color – officially “smoke silver” would have been equally hard to see in the dusk. But my headlights were on; wonder if Dean had his on.
It was an educational couple of seconds.
Leaving the Grapevine and looking down into the Central Valley
A memorial at Cholame put up by a Japanese fan in the 1980s.
This is about a mile or so west of the interchange.
My SL with the Cafe in the back. I read that in 1955 there was a garage here and the 2 cars were towed here.
Memorabilia in the Cafe – Dean had received a speeding ticket near Bakersfield, but by most accounts at the accident he was near the speed limit.
13 responses to “Driving with James Dean”
A fascinating science, road traffic fatality investigation. An interesting reconstruction Bill.
For me that experience was priceless HD – to experience it – not just read about it
been through that intersection many times, both ways, going to & from Club Bob (The Antidote to Re-Enlistment) with the CA ARNG…
Somewhere I read that the California highway department had reconfigured the intersection somewhat in an attempt to make it safer. Obviously it’s still a place to keep a tight rein on one’s attention. Very interesting post.
I took my niece (the same one from MN) here about 10 years ago and I seem to remember someone saying that the actual intersection was about 1/2 mile south of this.
But it doesn’t make much sense to move the road – together with the intersection – 1/2 mile. In many areas 46 becomes a divided highway with a large median strip – something I am sure didn’t exist in 1955. But at this actual location it was not divided and similar I believe to that Sept night.
Here’s an article about the state’s widening the highway in sections
Drove that route back in ’07 in my 40′ motorhome. Never realized that was where Mr Dean met his fate.
I think the only part that is truly dangerous is westbound on 46 – because there is no stop sign for those wanting to traverse to 41 east bound and cars going east bound to 41 will just turn right into possible traffic.
Thanks Bill. Very interesting write up. My husband and I were on our way to those races from Sacramento when we heard of the Dean’s death. I was 18 then. Thanks again for an interesting “ride.”
So interesting and you may be right about the color of the vehicle playing a part. Remember a study done years ago, that showed that people often didn’t see silver vehicles. Great read!
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