Shell Chateau Fire
by Tom Beardsley



July 14th  will mark the 41st  anniversary of the Shell Chateau fire and so we present this article by Tom Beardsley with a few additions by Mike Tirone and Pete Zizka. The Shell Chateau Restaurant was located at an ideal position on a major New York-to -Boston route in the pre-interstate highway period. Benny Hochberg built the 'Shell' in 1936, at the junction of routes 32 and Route 6, and William Sledjeski purchased it from Hotchberg in 1942. By 1979 Sledjeski's daughter Angela Blossick owned the famous restaurant and bar. In its heyday this was Willimantic's premier nightspot with live music and ballroom dancing. Al Saba. 'Mr. Willimantic' had worked at the Shell as a singing waiter when it first opened, and he fondly recalled the tremendous crowds there for Sunday night polka dances. Also, legend had it that on one occasion during the war, singer Dick Haymes gave an impromptu performance there. At the time of the fire, around 20 or so in the Shell Chateau patrons were just completing their late night cocktails  when the odor of smoke was detected. A visitor to the restroom noticed flames shooting from the ceiling, and bartender Steve Byrne quickly evacuated the building. The restaurant's phone was dead, but local policeman Cliff Spinner was passing by and he radioed the Willimantic Fire Department. By the time the firemen arrived a few minutes later, the flames had spread to the upper part of the building and were shooting through the roof. As the conflagration took hold, flames leapt over 40 feet into the air and the entire Shell Chateau bar, restaurant and a convenience store was gutted. The tragic event attracted a crowd estimated at over 500. More than one hundred firemen fought the blaze, and many traveled the short distances from adjacent towns. There were only two slight injuries -- back strains sustained by the heavily clad men fighting the blaze in the humid night air. Acting Captain Joseph “Al” Beaulieu who was in charge of the firefighting effort said the flames “had been going for quite some time in the loft”, before it was discovered. The blaze was hard to contain because there were no firewalls. Firefighters had to cut holes in the roof in order to vent the flames and the roof eventually caved in. Later, Fire Chief Charles Monzillo told reporters that the blaze started in the building's attic.  Captain Beaulieu said the roof was “tinder dry” and “the fire was boiling under it”. The original section of the Shell Chateau building was partially destroyed, but its more recent western addition was saved. The fire fighting operation began at 1:41 am, but it was not until 4:21 am that the fire was brought under control. The Shell Chateau fire had generated two noticeable ironies. Several months previously, the 'S' in the Shell Chateau sign had fallen off, presenting passers-by with the name "Hell Chateau." This sign was soon engulfed in flames, providing a hellish vision! And it did not escape anyone's notice that the insurance company in the building had an apt name. "Fireside Reality."





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