The James Dean Memorial in Cholame
There are actually two “James Dean Memorials”.
On September 30, 1955 James Dean died in a car crash at the intersection of what are today Highways 46 and 41. Today that intersection is signed as the “James Dean Memorial Junction”. Less than a mile away to the west is a memorial in his memory at the Jack Ranch Cafe. Both of these are, more or less, located in the township of Cholame in San Luis Obispo County.
On September 30, 2014 I visited the crash site at the hour corresponding to the accident and took photographs showing what the conditions might have been 59 years prior.
The photo above shows the sign marking the “James Dean Memorial Junction” at the intersection of Highways 41 and 46 east of Paso Robles. It was taken from Cholame Valley Road looking southeast.
Looking east from the intersection
Clicking on any of the photos on this page will open a gallery of full-sized images for better viewing.
This is close to the view that Donald Turnupseed would have had on the day of the accident. There is no direct sunlight except on the slopes of the far hill. Dean would have been coming down the long slope. Highway 46 has been realigned since that time. The new road is seen heading to the upper left and then cuts to the right. The old road can be seen faintly going around the right of the hill in the middle left of the photo.
The junction of Highway 41 to Highway 46 westbound is in the foreground.
Today drivers on Highway 46 are required to turn their headlights on during the day. This does help seeing oncoming traffic and it might have prevented the crash in 1955.
James Dean Memorials Quick Facts:
Memorial Sculpture at Jack Ranch Cafe: 35.72365, -120.29672
Memorial Junction and makeshift memorial: 35.73446, -120.28561
Parking: Plenty of obvious parking at the Jack Ranch Cafe.
At the Memorial Junction; remember this is a busy highway and intersection. Be safe and park on Cholame Valley Road. The turnoff for this road is shown below by the sign pointing to “Parkfield”. Just drive over the cattle guard in the road, park, and walk to the makeshift shrine. Don’t try crossing the highway! Believe me, they won’t rename the junction to honor you…
Looking west from the intersection
This is more or less the view that James Dean would have had on his way to the fateful intersection. This approximates fairly closely that day. My photo was taken on September 30, 2014 at 5:40. The accident occurred at 5:45.
The sun is low and behind the hills. The weather that day in 1955 in Paso Robles (25 miles to the west) was a high of 85° F, scattered clouds and visibility of 20 miles.
Satellite view of the James Dean Memorial Junction
This is the intersection as it exists today. It has been realigned since 1955 to make it somewhat safer, but it can still be somewhat hair-raising. Dean was coming from the right on Highway 46 (it was numbered “466” back then). Turnupseed was coming from the left and made a left turn onto Highway 41.
James Dean and his Porsche Spyder. Behind is the Ford station wagon and trailer that carried Bill Hickman and Sanford Roth
The above photo is supposedly the last photo of James Dean before the crash.
James Dean Crash site
The photographs of the crash site were taken by Sanford Roth, who, along with Bill Hickman, were following Dean in the Ford station wagon. Most captions say that the man on the left is unidentified, but my guess is that he is Bill Hickman. On the ground just to the right of the back end of the Spyder is Rolf Wuetherich. Don Dooley in the black shirt and then Buster Davidson and Paul Moreno, the ambulance attendants.
Crash site – 2014
2014 photograph of the same place at nearly the same time on the same date. Compare the hills in the background. This is looking to the NE up Highway 41 that heads toward Kettleman City and I-5.
Turnupseed’s Ford and the ambulance
This photo is looking almost due east. Where the couple is walking is approximately where the “James Dean Memorial Junction” sign is today.
I always wondered how the ambulance got there so fast. Obviously there is still light and the accident happened just at sunset. It turns out Paul Moreno owned a garage in Cholame along with the ambulance and was the first “first responder” on the scene. He called in the accident to the Highway Patrol in Paso Robles.
“Cholame” is an native American word meaning “the beautiful one”. The town takes its name from the creek that flows past it. The creek originates in the Parkfield area.
The San Andreas Fault also runs right through this area, a few hundred yards beyond the Ford in the photo above.
Makeshift shrine at the crash site
This is a closer view of where Dean’s car came to rest. Fans still remember and place flowers, packs of Chesterfield cigarettes and, other interesting things in his memory.
James Dean Memorial at the Jack Ranch Cafe
Closeup of the memorial
Below is the text on a plaque below the James Dean memorial:
A Small Token
This monument stands as a small token of my appreciation for the people
of America, from whom I have learned so much. It celebrates a people
who have over the years courageously followed the path of truth and justice,
while expanding the limits of mankind with their boundless pioneering
spirit. It also stands for James Dean and other American Rebels who
taught us the importance of having a cause.
To all those who helped this stranger from Japan realize his dream of
erecting this monument, I express my heartfelt thanks – The Hearst
family, which graciously made its land available for this monument,
Bill Bast and Mrs. Sanford Roth, James Dean’s closest and best
friends, who shared their memories with me; and the people of this
community, who warmly extended their kindness and cooperation.
And naturally, to all the James Dean fans who have carried his
torch throughout the years, thank you.
July 4, 1983