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James Dean’s last ride was along Highway 46 almost 70 years ago 

James Dean and his Porsche Spyder, reportedly taken in Sherman Oaks, about 4 and a half hours before the accident. Photo courtesy of James Dean official website.

Victims were taken to a Paso Robles hospital following the fatal accident

– As you drive by Paso Robles along Highway 46 East, you are greeted with sights of the rolling amber hills, groves of trees, and often a clear blue sky; however, you may not realize you are retracing the last route that actor James Dean drove close to 70 years ago where he died in a car crash at just 24 years old.

“James Dean had one of the most spectacularly brief careers of any screen star. In just more than a year, and only three films, Dean became a widely admired screen personality, a personification of the restless American youth of the mid-50s, and an embodiment of the title of one of his films, ‘Rebel Without a Cause,” reads the official James Dean website.

On Sept 30, 1955, Dean traveled to Salinas with mechanic Rolf Wüetherich, where he was set to race his Porsche Spyder. The pair stopped at Blackwell’s Corner about 45 minutes east of Paso Robles. Local history notes that Dean bought an apple and a soda and met with other racers, making plans to dine at the Paso Robles Inn later in the day, a meeting he didn’t keep.

The local weekly newspaper, The Paso Robles Journal, reports the events of that day in the October 6, 1955 issue:

“The young star—an instant success on Broadway in two plays, and believed destined for greatness after a fine performance in “East of Eden”—died en route to Paso Robles hospital in Paul Moreno’s Cholame ambulance after one of the most terrific crashes of two cars in the county’s record.

“According to the preliminary report of Highway Patrol Officers Ernie Tripke and Ronald Nelson, Dean was driving west on Highway 466 when Donald Gene Turnupseed, 23, Tulare, going east, started to make a left turn onto the “Y” junction with Highway 41. The two cars collided with terrible impact.”

Read the 1955 Paso Robles Journal account here on Page 1 and Page 6. Access to old Paso Robles area newspapers is provided courtesy of the Paso Robles Historical Society.

Witnesses are reported to have stated that Dean was taking evasive measures to avoid colliding with Turnupseed’s vehicle as it pulled in front of the oncoming Porsche. The Porsche rolled several times, landing, crushed on the roadside.

Turnupseed survived the crash with “only a bruised nose and face.” Wüetherich was thrown clear and suffered a broken jaw, broken leg, and other injuries. Dean was extracted from the wreckage, his neck broken and body a “mass of lacerations and bruises.” He died on the way to Paso Robles.

Pilgrimages to local memorials

James Dean merchandise, shirts, cups, posters, and more can be easily purchased, and every fan has at least one item with the star’s image. But, the only place you can see the memorials to Dean and his last stop is locally.

The sites from Blackwell’s Corner to the accident site and the nearby memorial sculpture are included on travel sites such as Discover Central California, Roadside America, TripAdvisor, Yelp, and more. A quick search of the internet turns up an uncountable number of personal accounts written by fans of all generations who have made personal pilgrimages to the local memorials.

For locals and visitors to San Luis Obispo County, it’s just a short drive out of Paso Robles to experience the James Dean memorials that others travel hundreds of miles to see.

Blackwell’s Corner, on the corner of Highways 46 and 33, opened in 1921, is a local home for James Dean memorabilia, such as posters and his racing goggles, along with the old Hollywood-themed diner called Forever Young Restaurant. Outside are giant cutouts of Dean that have become landmarks. “Today, we’re a favorite pit stop for people passing through from all over the world,” reads Blackwell’s Corner website. It’s also a great place to stop for locally-grown nuts and gourmet items.

Starting at Blackwell’s Corner, pull onto Highway 46 heading west. Following the ghostly tire tracks of Dean’s Porsche Spyder, travel a few miles to the accident site at the intersection of Highways 41 and 46 (formerly 466). Fans have decorated the roadside and fence with their personal memorials to the star.

The intersection was dedicated as the James Dean Memorial Junction on September 30, 2005. If you feel the urge to stop, be sure to pull off of the highway, only exit your vehicle if it is safe, and be very aware and careful.

A few more miles west, find the Mission Trails Cider House (formerly Jack’s Ranch Café) in Cholame, and the metal-sculpted James Dean Memorial wrapping around a tree of heaven. The memorial was constructed in 1977 for $13,000 by Japanese businessman, Seita Ohnishi, from Kobe, who had been a fan of Dean since seeing “East of Eden.”

James Dean Memorial on Highway 46 at Cholame. Courtesy Merced County News

Cholame isn’t the only place you can find remnants of Dean’s tragic passage through the area. The original coroner’s inquest report, dated October 11, 1955, is kept securely locked at San Luis Obispo Superior Court. The report can be viewed by the public with an appointment and a copy is available for a fee. For more information call (805) 706-3600.

Final words

Wüetherich recovered after several surgeries for his hip injury. Reports claim that he suffered from lifelong psychological problems resulting from the accident. He returned to his native Germany shortly after the accident and died in car crash in 1981.

Turnupseed gave just one interview following the crash, to the Tulare Advance-Register, and never spoke about it publicly again. He died of lung cancer at age 63 in 1995.

At the time of Dean’s death, “East of Eden” was the only movie that had been released. “Rebel Without a Cause” was released a month after his death and “Giant” was released in 1956. Dean received posthumous Oscar nominations for “Rebel Without a Cause” and “East of Eden,” and was awarded a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.

Dean was buried in his hometown of Fairmount, Indiana. Born in 1931, Dean would have been 93 years old on February 8, 2024. Ironically, shortly after finishing filming for “Giant” and days before the accident, Dean recorded a public service announcement with actor Gig Young in which he said, “Take it easy driving– the life you save may be mine.” Watch the video on Youtube.

Editor Jackie Iddings contributed to this report

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